On Failure, My Greatest Teacher

No man steps into the same river twice; for it’s not the same river, and he’s not the same man.” – Heraclitus

It seems that even speaking of the potential for failure before any kind of attempt is a bit of a taboo in many circles; as if uttering its name is some kind of ill-fated omen that brings it forth.

Misogi doesn’t subscribe to this kind of thinking. Failure is, and always should be, an inevitable facet of life. It should always be a teacher that we seek out, rather than desperately avoid.

The true possibility of failure should be present in every great attempt that we make; otherwise, what sort of goals are we presenting ourselves? A one-hundred percent success rate in personal endeavours suggests only that we perhaps are not at all as comfortable with genuinely exploring our limits as we profess to be. Rather, it would appear that the idea of a challenge so great that the risk of not succeeding is possible actually intimidates us.

If you’re hitting your mark every time that you try to, then you are simply nowhere near the outer edges of your limits. And you’re selling yourself short.

This kind of criticism can sound particularly unlikely to already established endurance athletes, who may find it easy to brush off such suggestions of intimidation or fear. After all, they may have completed events that may leave non-athletes with their jaw on the floor. I would argue, however, that just as everyone else, we also become acclimatised and familiar with certain kinds of challenges – which become our new norm. They may seem from the outside and to the untrained eye as huge undertakings, but I would wager that, typically, the ‘challenges’ that we pursue with some regularity do not truly garner our real respect, or offer much in the way of true risk.

This is another, slightly more abstract manifestation of both the SAID principle discussed earlier, as well as the training principle of progressive overload. Over enough time, we adapt to that which we practice, and what was once almost impossible for us gradually becomes our new benchmark.

The bar just gets raised to a new level of comfort. A hundred-kilometre ultra-marathon becomes your familiar territory, just as a five kilometre run once seemed. That’s not to suggest that the concept of such a task becomes easy – rather, that we are relatively confident in a positive outcome, as has historically been the case for us thus far. There doesn’t feel to be quite so much on the line as the first time we made the attempt.

Living our lives, particularly our athletic lives, avoiding failure limits us.

Failure is by far our greatest teacher. I would go as far to say that failure is one of the greatest tools in an athlete’s toolbox. When success bestows our attempts, we seldom accurately reflect on exactly what happened to get us to this point. Instead, the feelings of elation and accomplishment overshadow any real analysis of the details of the event. Critical analysis is thrown to the wind.

Is is the act of failure that actually demands reflection – it forces us to be humbled, and to closely ponder the reality of our attempt. Or at least it should. Any truly useful lesson in the athletic realm, I would argue, occurs only in these occasional moments where things did not go as we had planned.

The practice of Misogi, if nothing else, is an excellent source of failure, and an excellent provider of these moments of forced reflection.

When done correctly – in that truly audacious attempts are made and committed to, with or without ideal preparation – failure should be a very real possibility. Almost fifty percent of the time, to be accurate. Misogi begs for a rewiring of how we consider failure – it is not something to be avoided, but rather something we should meet like an old and ever-dependable friend. We ought to seek more opportunities to fail, to bite of more than we may be able to chew, in an effort to genuinely develop as athletes, and as people. That way one can be sure that you are truly nearing your limits.

Do not fear failure – not failure, but low aim is crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.” – Bruce Lee

When I step back and think objectively about my Channel swim attempt in just under three months, I can appreciate the element of something approaching delusion. The swim will be over seven times as far as I have ever swam, in one continuous hit out, in an environment in which I am extremely and profoundly uncomfortable and unfamiliar. To be entirely candid, there have already been many points during training at which I have thought about changing my plans to something less aquatic and uncomfortable; always neatly wrapped in an adequate excuse that leaves my ego intact.

The idea for me is not to pretend that the likelihood of failure is not high – as it undeniably is – or that success is assured. Instead, this kind of attempt is designed to genuinely explore the limits of that which I can perform, while acknowledging that said limit may be far closer than I might have hoped or planned for.

The outcome doesn’t matter so much; what is far more important is the sincerity of the attempt. There is something to be said, I believe, for going down swinging.

One thing that I am slowly learning to accept is that failure does not always come as one might expect it to. It’s surprisingly right there in the title of Alex Hutchinson’s earlier mentioned book Endurance; Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance – I just missed it the first time around.

Elastic. Failure is flexible, but not only in the way that I might hope it to be. Sometimes our limits are actually closer than we may realise, or closer than they may have been at other times. When you set out to explore your outer limits, you will eventually find them, and they will not always be in the same place. This can be due to countless intangible variables – from sleep, to diet, to external stresses, to emotional struggles. I’ve failed at things I once found easy. I’ve relatively coasted my way through certain hundred-kilometre trail runs, and at other times found myself face down on the trail, thirty kilometres into a training run, desperately exhausted and wondering for the life of me ‘what the hell is going on?’

It sounds obvious, but it requires an acceptance of the fact that we are humans, and are not robotic, to properly understand. We do not improve and develop on an unwavering upwards trajectory. We’re not better and better, everyday. The river is never the same, and the man is never the same. To me, this idea is at once both humbling, and empowering.

A curious cognitive balancing act is required, as this acceptance of potential for failure should not have any real impact on confidence, going into a Misogi attempt. When I’m toeing the start line of the Channel swim, I will need to be holding both this aforementioned acceptance of failure’s potential, as well as an unshakeable confidence in my own ability to perform and to endure hardship. It is rather difficult to explain this apparent double-think, and I suspect you might have to have lived it before to properly understanding its topography. Coming to terms with limitations does not equate to lack of confidence. The swim will be an ode for my willingness to attempt what is possibly more than I am ready for, while at the same time trying to maintain complete faith in my ability to get the task done.

The practice of Misogi is not some sort of golden-ticket solution for ensuring that you can truly achieve anything that you put your mind to, every time. It it is the opposite of that. It is a very real tool for putting yourself into situations of looming failure, and developing the techniques and mental and emotional agility to cope with such a scenario.

It will teach you that you can indeed do far more than you may think you are capable of – but more importantly, it will teach you how to deal with the occasions when you can’t.


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