How to bounce back from Epic Fail?
May 1, 2009 6:16 AM   Subscribe

How do you bounce back after taking a high risk opportunity that flops?

Essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb has written:

"Many people do not realize they are getting a lucky break in life when they get it. If a big publisher (or a big art dealer or a movie executive or a hotshot banker or a big thinker) suggests an appointment, cancel anything you have planned: you may not see such a window open up again."

Growing up, you hear advice like this on seizing the day and not letting go. Which is fine if you want to believe in destiny but it seems like there is a shortage of corresponding advice on what to do when you "cancel anything you had planned" only to discover that your "window" is a portal to Epic Fail.

Maybe your "hotshot banker" turned out to be Bernie Madoff. Or the "big publisher" turns you into a failed author. Or your "movie executive" mangled the film you took years trying to make and no one saw it.

Let's say you're older now after relentlessly pursuing your "lucky break" that wasn't. Now your life has been led on a goose chase that has cost you time and confidence. By going through one "window" you paid the opportunity cost of not going through other windows. You now have some serious questions about the life logic they hammered into you in the third grade musical about never giving up on your dreams, no matter what, like Thomas Edison.

If you have spent several years trying for something only to fail in your do you dispense with bitterness and get back that fresh feeling of still having a dream? You hear people talk about how they wish they had taken more chances in life, but what advice is out there for when you did and it sucks?
posted by anonymous to Religion & Philosophy (20 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
"Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination are omnipotent. The slogan "press on" has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."

- Calvin Coolidge
posted by fire&wings at 6:22 AM on May 1, 2009 [11 favorites]

Failure? You gained wisdom, certainly. There's value in that. Take a breath, look around, and discover your next path.
posted by jquinby at 6:25 AM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

"I already gave my best, and I have no regrets at all."
-William Hung
posted by thermonuclear.jive.turkey at 6:26 AM on May 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

You hear people talk about how they wish they had taken more chances in life, but what advice is out there for when you did and it sucks?

At least you were doing something big for those years. Life may have been beating you up, but it wasn't passing you by.

You have acquired seasoning now that can't be gained any other way. Once you've licked your wounds, you will find you are still much further out ahead of the pack than you think.
posted by bricoleur at 6:56 AM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you have spent several years trying for something only to fail in your do you dispense with bitterness and get back that fresh feeling of still having a dream?

Try Again?

A bit more depth on what I mean:

There's at least two options, and I can't tell from your question which fits your situation best. Either your dream is still your dream, but the avenue you used to pursue it has reached a dead end. Or, your dream wasn't really what you thought it'd be and you need a new dream.

So either you need a new avenue to open up, or you need to find that thing that gives your life a spark. The approaches differ, in the first case you already know what you want, you just have to find an alternative way of getting there. The second case is you need to redefine what it is what you want (and then work on ways of getting there).

I guess, there's a third option, discard your dreams and wallow in bitterness at the unfairness of life.

All of these options are about your way of looking at the situation. In my mind there's a world of difference between the guy waiting tables to scrape by between gigs/auditions/expeditions to Tibet and the guy waiting tables between moping at home about how life passed him by.
posted by forforf at 7:31 AM on May 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

It could be worse. You could have pursued something else more sensible that you didn't care about as much and it still might have sucked. Lots of people find that their low-risk, respectable day job that has little to do with their big dreams sucks their time and confidence out as well. Or, shoot, it could have happened that it wasn't your banker/publisher/producer's fault, but instead an actual personal shortcoming derailed you. That's extra fun.

Something like this has happened to me a few times: poured ambition and heart and ability into something and had it turn out to be a train wreck. I think everybody experiences it at some point (if nothing else, most of us have had relationships that we had high hopes for that didn't end well).

What's helped me in the past is a period of at least a few weeks where I pare down my obligations to the minimum possible. Some reflection and indulgent wound-licking is probably inevitable and maybe even healthy during this time, but I also try to spend it on activities I like and value... excepting activities that might be closely related to the failure, those I take a rest from or touch very gently. This gives me an opportunity to remember things about life that I value independently from what I'd set out to do, a chance to exercise other faculties, and some space to see if I'm really drawn back toward the activity at the core of the failed endeavor. If I am, I gradually start spending time on it, focusing on no particular goal other than trying to reconnect with what I liked about doing it in the first place.

Because if you can connect with the intrinsic rewards in participating in something rather than an externally measured "success," getting back into the game is a lot easier. Not everybody finds this intrinsic rewards focus works for them, and let's face it, we all want some kind of social validation of what we do, so it's a little silly to pretend that's all that matters. At some point, if you go back to doing whatever it was, you'll probably need to find another opportunity or challenge and make at least a measured success of it (you might try something smaller than The Big Opportunity™ at first), but I think the idea of intrinsic rewards is pretty important, because it's pretty difficult to guarantee any outcome in life, ever. To no small extent, "the only triumph that you can be guaranteed is the one that you take for yourself."
posted by weston at 7:49 AM on May 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

You may enjoy this question: Should I include a failed startup on my resume?

Every single answer boils down to yes.
posted by amtho at 7:57 AM on May 1, 2009

I've stuck my neck out on lots of creative projects that wound up collapsing, and you know what I learned? How to be a better judge of my limitations (and others'). But I didn't learn that they hadn't been worth the risk. It's how you react to failure that reflects on you, not whether you fail.

Not taking those risks in life is not going to keep you from being bitter later on if your potential still isn't realized. You can regret the risks you didn't take just as profoundly as the ones that you did take. Basically if you've primed yourself to regret, then you will regret. I'm doing everything I can to eradicate this instinct so that by the time I'm older I'll have to really strain myself to even remember what it feels like.

As for your examples, it all really comes down to whether you think it's possible for time to be "wasted." I don't. A friend once pointed out to me that once you start to entertain the concept of wasted time, you open yourself up to overwhelming grief and even madness as you try to account for the value in hours, months, whole years as they pass. Since you don't know where you're headed in life or what the ultimate point of your journey will be (if it has one), you have no basis upon which to estimate time's value. All you can do is... do what you do.

There's the saying, "Live as if you know you're going to die tomorrow, but farm as if you know you will live forever." I apply that to my own work and it has gotten me over many an internal crisis.
posted by hermitosis at 7:59 AM on May 1, 2009 [9 favorites]

The most successful people are not those that never failed, but those who never gave up after failing. Abraham lincoln is a perfect example of that.

Sure, there are no guarantees, but those who ultimate succeed are certainly those that have experienced their share of failures as well.

If you have been following your heart and your dreams, keep doing it. You have not gained 'nothing' out of your past experiences. It may be that you are looking in the wrong places. Maybe reflect on what was common to all your 'bad' experiences, both within yourself and the opportunities that you sought.

Don't give up. Failure makes you feel like shit, but put it in perspective, and try to see them as valuable experiences. I suspect it's about spending a life time learning what NOT to do the next time, until one runs out of mistakes to make, or zeroes in on the one thing that they are amazing at.
posted by margaretlam at 8:02 AM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you have spent several years trying for something only to fail in your do you dispense with bitterness and get back that fresh feeling of still having a dream?
I don't know, other than what's been mentioned already. However, this movie, about these guys might be able to give you some idea.
They have been following their dream for 30 years, and are just recently "making it".
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 8:22 AM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sorry, these guys
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 8:41 AM on May 1, 2009

In three words I can sum up everything I've learned about life: it goes on.
-Robert Frost

Just keep on keeping on, comrade. Life will proceed apace.
posted by sickinthehead at 8:53 AM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Every second you spend being bitter about a failed pursuit blinds you from opportunities presenting themselves right now.
posted by DreamerFi at 9:34 AM on May 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

I took a chance on my dream college across the country, and I flared out spectacularly in a long, slow, drawn-out mental breakdown. It was indeed an Epic Fail. When I first came home filled with self-recrimination and disappointment, I would occasionally start to wail about how I should have seen my own limitations and just gone to an easy, ordinary college close to home.

My mother said, "Yes, but if you hadn't gone, you'd be second-guessing it for the rest of your life, thinking, 'if only I had gone there instead...'" And she was right. You weren't to know that your Great Big Thing was going to end this way, and if you hadn't at least tried you'd always be regretting it.

A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.
posted by lolichka at 12:05 PM on May 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

Ship's aren't for sinking either.

See, all things in life have two sides. You can regret trying or you can regret not trying. It's still regret. It all comes down to your attitude. Do you believe you should spend time regretting, or do you think you should spend time looking forward?
posted by spicynuts at 12:51 PM on May 1, 2009

“Pain is temporary. It may last a minute, or an hour, or a day, or a year, but eventually it will subside and something else will take its place. If I quit, however, it lasts forever.”

- Lance Armstrong
posted by triggerfinger at 1:56 PM on May 1, 2009 [3 favorites]

It was a gift. Really! It was a gift to learn you that if you tried to do something and ended up falling on your face, it didn't kill you and you'll be stronger for the experience.

I'm not saying I'm right, but I went through some bad trouble after falling on my face in graduate school & had to effect some kind of Copernican revolution in my thinking to get back on my feet again. Some of it is still bitter and painful but ultimately I think it did me a favor, and I try hard to be grateful for the lesson (if not the debt.. !).

After all this I said to a longtime friend (apropos of what, I can't recall) "Well, I don't know everything." And she was like "Whoah.. I cannot believe you actually said that." The truth was, part of why I failed was being a know-it-all instead of a student, and I had to fail in order to figure that out. So frankly, if I went back and tried it again, I probably wouldn't fail, if I learned from my mistakes the first time. And I do much better at getting along with colleagues & gaining new skills now that I don't act like I know everything.

If you met that Very Important Person and the window opened led to an epic fail.. It's true that you wouldn't see such a window again - you wouldn't be that person again who was about to fail. The next window you'd see would be different and might lead to an epic win.
posted by citron at 2:07 PM on May 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Find someone who's in a successful and fulfilling relationship. Now ask them how many times they failed before their current one. No one gets it right the first time and everyone has to go through some shit or another. Becoming closed off because of someone else's actions is only going to hurt you in the long run.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 3:42 PM on May 3, 2009

It's not about how many times you fall. It's about how many times you get back up.
posted by nudar at 9:19 PM on May 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

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