Swashbuckling, or how to respond to failure

swashbucklingBack in November, I read these words from Seth Godin:

“Learning from a failure is critical. Connecting effort with failure at an emotional level is crippling. … Early in our careers, we’re encouraged to avoid failure, and one way we do that is by building up a set of emotions around failure, emotions we try to avoid, and emotions that we associate with the effort of people who fail. It turns out that this is precisely the opposite of the approach of people who end up succeeding.”

Godin points out the obvious: failure doesn’t feel good.

By the time most of us reach young adulthood, we, or at least our subconscious minds, have come to associate “failure” with a whole spectrum of negative emotions: rejection and ostracism, embarrassment and humiliation, disappointment and resentment, envy and jealousy. When the next failure comes, that old poison leaks back into our minds and causes us to balk, to second guess, to overanalyze.

We shrink before an overbearing boss who dredges up the same mixture of anger and helplessness that you felt when your high school football coach chewed out the team for his mistakes.

The attractive woman at the coffeeshop who after an otherwise pleasant and encouraging conversation declines your invitation to dinner dumps you into a state of depression that you can’t shake for several weeks. She isn’t the girl who broke your heart when you were fifteen, but the sickness is the same.

Why is that?

Why can some people stand up to their bosses without getting fired? How can some men respond to rejection with optimism and nonchalance? Because once we reach adulthood, we have a choice in how we respond to failure. We can study it, or we can allow negative emotions to incapacitate us.

I’m not saying that you should stifle or invalidate how you feel. After all, contents under pressure have a tendency to explode. Airing out what you’re feeling is healthy because stress is linked to cardiovascular disease, among other illnesses. Not talking about your feelings can quite literally kill you.

You may not at first have a choice how you feel, but you do have a choice in how to act and what to do after the first storm has passed.

I try—but often fail (sigh)—to respond to failure with these 8 Steps to Swashbuckling:

1. Give myself the freedom to feel whatever I’m feeling for a short time and talk it out with my wife or a close friend.

2. Strive for some degree of detachment. This is very difficult in the moment when anger or sadness are making more noise in my mind than sirens at 3am.

3. Once separated from that tumult of emotion, practice discernment, unpack those emotions, and parse out what is a knee-jerk reaction from pride, what is scar tissue from past experiences, and what is legitimate frustration at someone else’s mistake or wrongdoing.

4. Ask, even if someone else was in the wrong, “What can this teach me?”

5. Decide then what I will do or try, how I will act or change. How will I prepare to fail again with more boldness than before?

6. Remind myself that my most of my fears are groundless and most of the possible negative outcomes that cause my anxiety will never come to pass. The majority of the bad things that could happen don’t, and many, many good things that I never foresaw do, in fact, happen.

7. Stop blaming all of the “idiots” for my failure.

8. Cut down on my diet of self-pity.


I love the word “swashbuckling” both because it comes with a mouthful of delicious syllables and because it denotes a daring, adventurous, flamboyant confidence. You can’t be swashbuckling and be afraid of failure. Failure is always an option, but the emotions you associate with it make you either a musketeer or malcontent.

Toward the end of my dating career before I got married I realized that for a woman to say yes when I asked her out on a date was less important than for me to exercise boldness. I couldn’t control her feelings or her answer, but I could take deliberate steps to become a man not paralyzed by fear of rejection and failure.

Can you ask someone out on a date, get a no, and think, “Your loss!”? Can you face failure without slipping into a vortex of self-loathing? Step out of the whirlwind. Take stock of your surroundings. Form your next plan of attack.


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