The 6 Ways We Fail Ourselves

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It’s December 16, 2008 and I’m at a ski lodge in the Southern Alps with my husband. We’re sitting at dinner and there’s a fire crackling in the chimney. I defended my doctoral thesis in Marine Optics the day before some kilometers away in Nice, France.

I had spent four years of my life immersed in understanding the optical properties of sea water and minerals and particles inside it and what they can tell us about the environment. In those four years I had struggled through countless scientific papers written in techno-jargon and requiring an entirely new vocabulary, I had spent days in the lab putting our instruments together or repairing connections and night at my computer sending mission files to and receiving data from our little robot out at sea bravely measuring things like light backscatter, water temperature, oxygen concentration and water salinity. I had spent neck-cramping months wading through thousands of data points, plotting, graphing and questioning whether I had truly understood what was going. And let’s not forget about the agony of writing 200 pages of something that is novel, and worthy of reading.

I stood there in a repurposed lab with an audience of about 50 people. My introduction to the panel of 6 jurors was in French. I had spent the night before in tears, certain that I was bound to fail this thesis defense and would have to do it all over again. I did not. I passed with high distinction and received handshakes and kisses and claps on my back. We went out for drinks afterwards and everyone congratulated me on the range of work and output I had managed to generate in those four years.

As my husband and I sat in that ski lodge restaurant with the waiter filling our glasses of wine, I felt a strange emptiness within me. A gaping, sucking darkness that dragged at my soul. My husband picked up his glass and smiled at me.

“Cheers to Dr. Kathy,” he said.

I picked up my glass and tried to smile. I grimaced instead. Then tears started leaking out of the edges of my eyes.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Hubby asked.

I couldn’t open my mouth, I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t explain.

I did not know.


What’s Wrong

Bronnie Ware is a nurse in Australia who takes care of the elderly dying in their last 3 months of life. Over the years, she found that as she listened to the regrets of the dying, five themes kept coming up for most people. She compiled these into the top five regrets of the dying. Number one? “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

I so resonated with that. Whether we acknowledge it or not, so many of us live lives we think people will approve of rather than lives we want. Your mother might have never forced you to go to medical school, your father might have never threatened you with being cut out of the family inheritance if you didn’t take over the family business, but there are implicit social demands that are made on us, and without recognizing or acknowledging them, we unknowing make choices that will be approved of by others, even though they may go against our heart’s calling.

On that cozy night with my husband, I suspect my heart was mourning four years of effort in a direction it was not interested in. The cerebral translation of that moment? I had let myself down by achieving someone else’s dream at the cost of my own. I did not know whose dream it was, but I did know that it was not mine. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, I had failed.

What failure am I talking about?

When I talk about ‘failure’, I’m talking about self-defined failure. I’m talking about that raw moment of encounter with your self, when you look in the mirror, and you dare to speak the truth without sugar coating it as an ‘obstacle’, a ‘challenge’ or any other words designed to make us feel less shitty about ourselves. That moment when you stare into your own eyes and say: I failed you. I might have three new letters after my name, but I still failed you and I’m sorry.

I’m talking about self-perceived failure. The dream you never lived. The scientist-you that failed the writer-you. The warrior-you that failed the lover-you. The corporate-you that failed the father-you or the mother-you that failed the woman-you.

The Points We Get Stuck At. And Fail.

You see there are six big places where we get stuck on our path to self-actualization: on our path to fulfillment. Many of us never make it out of there. Case in point? Nurse Bronnie and her regrets list.


The Failure Points Model ®


This is a failure to set a meaningful goal –  a personal definition for success. It’s the first failure point and the one most people fail at (Right Bronnie?) If you fail to set your own definition of success, there’s no moving forward after that. Wherever you go, it’s not towards what you internally define as success. It encompasses many failures. A failure to recognize yourself as an individual, failure to give yourself the right or the power of choice and so on.

“Our greatest fear should not be of failure, but of succeeding at things in life that don’t really matter.” Francis Chan


Failure to launch is a problem of will, of decision. We want the outcome to exist but we don’t want to take either the responsibility or the risk. We block, we research, we prepare, we consider, we plan, we learn but we never take the leap and go for what we want, even though we’re crystal clear on what that is.

“The tragedy of life is not death but what we let die inside us while we live.” Norman Cousins


This is the point where you have to either ramp up your efforts or go home. When the rubber hits the road, it is time double down on effort, skill building, grit and persistence. When people take that leap towards their dreams, they imagine that it’s the hardest part of the journey. Believe me it’s not. The hardest part is here. Whether you succeed or not, this is the point at which you really have to put on your big girl underpants and big boy boots and begin the hustle.   

“If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.” Zig Ziglar


This one is tricky because it masquerades as long-term success. You dream, you launch and? You succeed! Then you sit back, relax and pat yourself on the back, rub your belly with satisfaction and consider that you have it made. This is one of the biggest blind spots for creatives, entrepreneurs, artists or anyone going for their dreams. You stick to what worked and fail to grow. You fail to try new things, you fail to venture into new areas, experiment with a new style, innovate in a different market, use a different product, try a different genre.  In short, you fail to fail. You ride the wave you’re on, and that would be no problem except that every waves dies out and when yours does, it comes as a complete shock. You are totally broadsided, you don’t know where you went wrong, and why you deserve such a terrible thing to happen to you. It’s awful and the recovery is rough.

“A comfort zone is a beautiful place, but nothing ever grows there.” Unknown


This is where the success and growth become an addiction. You forget why you got onto this goddamn train in the first place. You keep pushing yourself – and your team – harder, faster, better, and you fail to enjoy the results, you fail to take credit for what you’ve created, written, produced, developed. You become obsessed with some sort of destination and forget completely about the journey. In short, you fail to recognize that you are indeed, living your dream! It’s a marathon with no finish line. You know what that leads to, of course? Exhaustion, burnout, tattered dreams and a worn out story. It is essential to take time out to enjoy your dream, to revel in the magic you’ve cast on your world, to breathe deeply and take a break in between rounds.

“Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.” Socrates


This one is an addiction to success despite the dream having lived itself out. I suspect this is where authors, artists, and serial entrepreneurs figure out their own success formula, and repeat the cycle of success so often and so easily that getting out is no longer an option. They are trapped by their own success and get to a point where they are able to come up with a decent product that ‘does well’ but has lost the soul that was initially in it. I can easily think of a couple authors whose books I used to wait for and save pennies so I could afford the newly released hard cover version because I couldn’t wait long enough for the paperback to be released and today, because I have come to expect the same generic output, I cannot imagine reading their books even for free. Sometimes we have to know when to call it quits and move on to the next dream.

“The time to quit is before you wish you had.” –Kimberly K. Jones


In coming posts, I’ll take a deep dive into each point and talk about it in more detail.  In the meantime, what are your thoughts on failure? Do you agree with my list? Have you found yourself stuck in one of these failures? 

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