It’s Just Data

It was my junior or senior year of college and I remember the teary, frustrated call to my mom, “why are people so difficult? Why can’t they be predictable like equations?”

Fun fact: if you didn’t know, I was a physics major in college.

I laugh now, but I also have some of the same fears: what if I fail in my relationships because I can’t predict and choose the outcome? What if the other person doesn’t respond how I expect? 

Taking risks that can result in failure are terrifying. Not because I might not win. Or might not be right. Or might not succeed. Those aren’t really the opposites of failure. I’m afraid to fail because it’s proof that I might not be in control. 

If I was in control, things would always turn out the way I hoped. If I was in control, I’d never be disappointed. If I was in control…the list could go on and on. I lived for a long time under the illusion (delusion?) that I had the option of being in complete control of all aspects of my life.

It took a lot of disappointment in big ways to start to let go of that. My husband could not have prevented either of his bouts with cancer. My first teaching job didn’t work out the way I expected. Buying a house, going to grad school, having kids. None of those things force the hand of life feeling how we want it to. We can’t control most of what happens in our lives. We can’t stop the people we love from dying.

As I wrestled with all of this, praying to release the need for control, confessing when I inevitably failed to let it go, someone (a therapist, probably) told me three words that changed everything: it’s just data. 

Failure is just information for next time.

When that project at work doesn’t go how you expect, it doesn’t mean you’re no longer an expert in your field, it just means you’ll have to do something different next time you try.

When that friendship or relationship doesn’t work out, it’s an opportunity to see where you may need to grow, to make room for someone in your life and to be a good friend for someone else in the future.

I still absolutely hate that I can’t control the outcomes of things. I can’t guarantee my kids will lead long, happy, and healthy lives. I can’t promise I’ll never say something awkward or hurtful. I can’t guarantee weather and I’m never certain if what I put into my shopping cart is what will show up in my grocery order and I can’t always predict how the movie will end.

Hating to fail isn’t about needing to win. Winning is fun. Super fun. Love to win. But being in control feels safe – it’s like an emotional security blanket. One that will smother you if you’re not careful.

So, here I am, a girl, sitting in front of a microphone begging you to remember that failure doesn’t mean anything more than data and the more you release control, the more you’ll learn. Absolute control leaves no room for curiosity.

Here are three books to help you get really good at failing: Mindset by Carol Dwek, What Do You Do With a Problem by Kobi Yamada, and How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams.

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