Over the past year, I’ve had questions from time to time about my weight loss from people wanting to know – what else – how I did it. I never addressed it on the blog, because (a) that’s not really the focus of this blog, and (b) the answer is really boring. (I used MyFitnessPal to track my calorie intake, and cut out refined/processed carbs and sugar. That’s it. I told you it was boring.) But then, recently, I was talking to my husband, who is now working on losing weight and overhauling his diet to deal with his GERD symptoms, and I realized that there was a post about this that I wanted to write, after all. Indirectly, it’s about a “how” … not necessarily of losing weight, but rather a “how” of doing anything that is difficult and maybe a little scary. It’s a pretty simple “how” but, somehow, one that didn’t dawn on me until this past year and which seems, from talking to my husband, to be overlooked by others as well.
Before I go on, let me digress for a second. I emphasized that this is a “how” – only one. Maybe not even the most important one. (I think the most important one is deciding to commit to doing something difficult and scary, and deciding that it is so necessary to your personal fulfillment that not doing it is no longer an option.) There is no one, sole way of accomplishing any goal, and no magic secret that takes you all the way. Success, in my experience, is made up of little decisions – some so seemingly insignificant that you don’t even notice them – and the only thing they have in common is that, in some way, they propel you forward. Or sideways. Sometimes, the success you end up finding is not the success you thought you were searching for. I can’t tell you how you get there; I have no idea. But I do know that you won’t get there if you anticipate failure.
“Well, duh! Who starts any goal by anticipating failure, anyway?” you scoff. And I’ll tell you: most of us. I did it, for years. Let’s take my book, for example. I have been trying, in one form or another, to write that very same book for about a decade. I still have drafts on my oldest computer – of the first chapter, of the second or third attempt at an outline, of various character synopses – salvaged from hard drives of other computers long gone. For nine years, I failed to write that book. Some years, I wasn’t even actively trying to write, but the sense of failure stayed with me. And then, it happened. Last year, I did it – I wrote it. It took about 8 months, and it was painful, yes, but suddenly not an insurmountable challenge. I did it while being the busiest I’ve ever been. So, what changed? Only one thing.
I committed to doing it … and committed to not thinking about failing.
I didn’t give myself any “outs”. You know what I’m talking about. “I’m writing this for me, so it doesn’t matter if nobody reads it.” (Let me pause again here. If you’re a writer who writes solely for yourself, that’s awesome. I’m not denying that as a legitimate goal. I’m just not that kind of writer. I write because, fundamentally, I want people to read my words. If I wrote purely for my own amusement, I would probably never write. Because I can talk to myself any time I please.) The nature of “outs” is different – for everybody, for every activity. My husband, who is rocking his new diet & fitness regime, was talking about how it would be okay if he fell off the wagon for a day, here and there. For me, writing my book, it had always been: “even if I don’t finish, it’s okay.” And, really, the implicit message behind all of our “outs” is the same: it’s okay when I fail. The thing is, whether we realize it or not, our minds and hearts listen to the words coming out of our mouths. We don’t intend to anticipate failure. We don’t want to fail. But when s**t gets hard, our brains and our hearts remember the message we’ve been sending all along. It’s okay to fail.
This is not a post about tough love. Failure happens. Sometimes we have a hand in it, sometimes we don’t. I don’t want anyone to beat themselves up over it. It is okay if you fail. Sometimes, it’s the best thing that can happen, because you learn an invaluable lesson. Sometimes, it just plain sucks, and the only thing to do is move on. But if you want to succeed, don’t commit to a goal with the idea of failure firmly planted in your heart and mind. It might seem like a safety net but, trust me, that’s a lie. Strive, certain of success. Striving, certain of failure, is like trying to run a race with your shoelaces tied together. Your odds of getting to the finish line are better if you don’t do that.
[Let me pause – again, yikes – for just a teensy bit of tough love. Visualizing success, without doing any actual (usually hard) work, is nothing more than daydreaming, no matter what The Secret told your mom. Visualizing success, without doing the work, is like dreaming about winning the lottery without ever buying a ticket. The best advice I’ve read recently came from Mindy Kaling’s Why Not Me: “Work hard, know your shit, show your shit, and then feel entitled.” Feel entitled to success, and don’t tie your shoelaces together.]
“But,” you say, “I’m just being realistic. Success is hard, and assuming I’ll achieve it without any setbacks is setting up an impossible standard.” You have a point. And … I have a counterpoint. See, it’s a matter of perspective. Setbacks are almost inevitable, yes, but your attitude can make a huge difference in whether they turn out to be mere bumps in the road, or the end of the road. Let’s go back to my book example. If my attitude, starting out, is “it’s okay if I don’t finish”, guess what will happen the first time I run into writer’s block? (This usually happens every 10 pages or so.) I will do what I have done numerous times in the past; I’ll give up. The failure would seem inevitable – like it had been meant to be, all along. But if my perspective is “I will finish this book, and it’s going to be a good one, by golly!” then you know what happens? I get the same writer’s block, just as often. And I still think about quitting. Just as often. But I don’t – because I have somewhere to go, and this is just something that’s standing in my way. It’s not fate; it’s just an inconvenience. A bridge guarded by a troll demanding a toll of success before I can move forward.
Sorry, I may have gone a little overboard with the metaphors.
Back to the point at hand. It’s okay to recognize that, 99% of the time, success is hard. It’s especially good to remember that when you’re in the middle of dealing with one of its hardships. Experiencing hardship is not a sign of failure. It is not failure. Failure is how you react to the hardship. It’s one thing to say, “Adina, you will probably experience a lot of writer’s block, and that’s okay.” I mean, it’s not the most useful mantra to adopt when trying to write a book, but it’s inoffensive enough. It’s completely different from saying, “it’s okay if I don’t finish this book.” The truth is that most of us don’t anticipate hardship; we anticipate failure. My husband didn’t say, “it’s okay if I’m tempted to eat some chips & salsa now and then.” He said, “it’s okay if I fall off the wagon.” I’m telling you what I told him: don’t do that. You owe it to yourself to not do that. Assess your success or failure after you’ve reached the finish line, not before you’ve left the starting blocks.
For one thing, you may be surprised by what “success” and “failure” mean to you once the finish line is behind you. My book has sold a whopping, like, 20 copies. Had I told myself, 9 months ago, “it’s okay if my book only sells 20 copies” … well, there would be no book for me to talk about now. Whenever my conviction wavered during those long months of writing – and it did! Oh boy, did it ever – I was certain that I would feel like a failure if the book didn’t sell a lot of copies. So, by necessity, I told myself that it would. And you know what? I don’t feel like a failure now. Sure, I’m disappointed (a little or a lot, depending on the day), but that’s different. I’m proud of the book I wrote. I’m happy it has the chance to be read. And I’m freaking excited about writing the next one. Which will sell a million copies, naturally.
Changing your perspective is a funny thing. It might start in one area of your life, but it has a tendency to spread. All my life, I’ve been the kind of person who was overly cautious – realistic, I liked to say. Aim high-ish, but keep expectations in check. And, above all, don’t expect success – that’s presumptuous. I did okay for myself with that mindset. Yet, throughout most of my adult life, I felt haunted by the spectre of failure. I thought it was the fear of failure that was holding me back, but it was actually the opposite. I had grown used to keeping failure close at hand, like an illusory safety net. When I started to focus not on what I might not be able to do, but on what I wanted to do, I suddenly felt freer and, oddly, more courageous – in all areas of my life. Reaching for the moon is either gonna get you a chunk of lunar rock in your back pocket, or make you realize that, like, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro is awesome. Or that you’re really good at astrophysics. Either way, you will have done something difficult and scary and, most likely, pretty amazing.