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She started in the back, where she expected to be, but something changed halfway through the race. She was moving up, and gradually passing one runner after another, keeping a steady rhythm as others slowed. My excitement and enthusiasm grew with each passing lap. “You can PR big! Keep it going!” I’d yell as she passed by me on the far side of the track. On the last lap, I became a maniac, yelling and screaming a seemingly random combination of syllabus meant to inform her she was running great. As she crossed the finish line, I looked down and saw that she’d just run by far the fastest 5k of her life. I was ecstatic. A proud coach thrilled for an athlete who just had a massive breakthrough. She was pissed.

As I approached her, I expected to see an athlete beaming with pride, but I was met with a dejected and upset one. In that split second before confronting her, my mind was scrambling for a response. A big “congrats” was what I had intended, but seeing her body language, I stumbled upon “How was it?” She quipped back “Horrible. I got 10th.” In that moment, I realized that we had different definitions of success and failure. I was judging her performance based on prior versions of herself. She’d just run faster than she ever had, so it was a success. Her judgment was based on competing against others. Where did she finish in the race? 10thwas smack dab in the middle, and a long way from the podium. So obviously her race was a failure. We’d both watched or been a part of the same exact race. But how we judged it was entirely different, with two contrasting emotional states, joy and sadness, guiding our reactions.

This wasn’t the last time I would encounter a mismatch between my declaration of a good or bad race, and the athletes. Sometimes it’s like this situation where we had different definitions. Other times it’s because one of us has unrealistic expectations. Every time it occurred, I was left with this strange realization; that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are subjective and that they depend on how we define success, failure, and our expectations. 

The first step to improving our relationship with failure is to understand how we are defining it. Where is the comparison point? Are we judging it based on prior versions of ourselves, an idealized version, or some other competitor? Where our comparison point lies helps shape whether we will react positively or negatively to a performance. Our definition is often tied to goal setting. We often set goals as a way to motivate us to practice for a performance. Yet those same goals can become a line in the sand, delineating whether we succeeded or failed at a task. To combat this, we need to change how we approach goal setting. Giving ourselves multiple targets to shoot for. As well as adding process orientated goals to the tradition outcome orientated ones.

Process orientated goals do just what their namesake says. They shift the focus from external results (i.e., how much did my bench press improve?) to the tasks that should result in those outcomes. For example, a gym goer might switch from measuring her goals based on weight loss, and instead switch to how often she showed up. Did she follow through on going to the gym three times a week for 45-minutes each?  Another example might be our runner who switches from trying to achieve a certain time goal to executing his race tactics. Did he take a chance by going out the first mile of the 5k a little faster than normal? If so, then regardless of the end result, he can check off that goal.

The purpose isn’t to minimize outcomes and never shoot for our best performance or to win the game, it’s to give ourselves different measuring points that bring us more in line with the reality that success and failure isn’t black and white. We can still lose a game, but play to our potential and execute our tasks to near perfection. Broadening our goal setting is one way to bring nuance into a binary world.

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