I don’t always feel like a trailblazer

Some days – some weeks – I don’t feel at all like a brave pioneer. 

Recently we endured some challenges and disappointments at work, some of which were painfully personal. I blamed myself. Surely I could have done better? I went into analysis paralysis, endlessly wondering what I could have done differently. I felt like a failure. I felt stupid. I definitely did not feel like a courageous and inspirational pioneer! 

How about you? Are there times in your life that you didn’t just drop the ball – you dropped it, trod on it, and smashed into a thousand tiny pieces? 

Many years ago, in my previous life as a mechanical engineer, I was in charge of relocating and upgrading a shampoo packaging line from our existing facility to one about 100 miles / 160 km away. I was only 22 years old, and was feeling very unqualified and overwhelmed with this mammoth project. There was a plethora of complex factors to consider, and this inexperienced young engineer was in charge. I planned and prepared for months, built and rebuilt my Gantt charts and critical path analyses, and endured many sleepless nights in my pursuit of the “perfect” project. Time came to move the line, upgrade some equipment, and get that beast up and running. I was hopeful, yet a little scared. I felt well prepared – quietly confident. 

Then it all went horribly wrong. 

One of the pieces of equipment that we were upgrading was the bottle unscrambler. This shiny new, and very expensive machine was built in Italy, and had been shipped over well in advance of the project deadline. I had meticulously mapped out the line configuration in AUTOCAD, making sure that each component (unscrambler, conveyors, filler, capper, labeller, etc) was correctly configured and that all the pieces of the puzzle fitted together as they ought. Most of the machines on the line came with two configurations – clockwise, and anti-clockwise. Depending upon which side of the conveyor they operated, I had the manufacturer set up each piece as required so that the line would run as it ought. 

Can you see where this is going?

After several months of planning and execution, we were finally ready to conduct our first test run. Time to see if all was well.

Imagine my horror when I realised that our fancy, shiny unscrambler was, in fact, rotating in the wrong direction. I think my heart dropped into my shoes…

How could I have stuffed up so badly? Could I really have invested so many hours in careful planning and preparation, yet missed such a crucial, detail? I was ropable. 

Now, we did manage to correct things with a reasonable amount of effort, and things moved along smoothly. But, at the point where I realised my monumental error, I felt very, very stupid. I wanted to run away and hide. 

I did not feel like an innovator. I felt hopeless and useless. 

Now, I wish I could say that this was my one great failure in life, that I’ve generally been astute, wise, thorough, and insightful – but that is definitely not the case. Like you, I have messed up on many painful occasions. 

But, I’m still in the race. 

My greatest struggle in failure is the destructive self-talk that typically results, such as:

    • “You’re stupid”
    • “What a loser!”
    • “You idiot”
    • “It was mistake ever trying to do this.”
    • “You should just quit and let someone qualified take over.”
    • “This is just too hard.”
    • “Why even bother trying?”

If you entertain these pernicious voices for long, you’ll spiral into a nose dive that will end up poisoning your mind and breaking your spirit. You cannot – you must not – give in. You can’t stop a bird from landing on your head, it has been said, but you don’t have to let it nest in your hair. Don’t allow those lying voices to take root in your mind, but, rather, take proactive action to dispel them. 

First, separate fact from fiction.

Quickly and clearly differentiate the facts of the matter from the stories that you are telling yourself about those facts. Ask yourself, “What do I undoubtedly know to be true?” If necessary, involve an unbiased, external party, and seek to break through the emotional haze to see the cold, hard facts. After all, the truth will make you free. 

We all tell ourselves stories. No one is immune to the cogitations of our imaginations – the fanciful narratives that are fuelled by our faults and failures. We ruminate – often late at night or early in the morning – on the fearful possibilities and permutations that may, or may not, take places in our lives. Our inadequacies and misjudgments are magnified tenfold, resulting in catastrophic outcomes of near-biblical proportions. The end result is a vicious self-castigation, an erosion of confidence, and the sapping of confidence. How do you overcome these works of fiction and rob them of their destructive power? 

Second, protect your mind and spirit by reinforcing the truth and tearing down lies.

Remind yourself of the verity of the facts – that which you know to be true. Repeat the truth over and over again, replacing lies and half-truths with undisputed certainty. 

The battle ground of life is the mind. As much as you win or lose the battle of the mind, you win or lose life. As you think in your heart and mind, so are you. Therefore, guard your mind from malicious, doubtful, fearful and fictional contemplations. 

Sow a thought; reap an action.

Sow an action, reap a habit.

Sow a habit, reap a character.

Sow a character, reap a destiny. 

You have little hope of vanquishing error with mere will power alone. Fiction must be replaced, not removed. Truth displaces error like water displaces air in a container. So, replace:

– Fiction with fact

– Half-truths with certainties

– Imaginations with reflections

– Fearful possibilities with realistic options

– Anxious ruminations with positive perspectives

Third, act deliberately based upon what you know, not what you feel.

Feelings are fickle, and are vulnerable to influence by a whole host of factors, including environment, health, hormones, fatigue, and more. Facts – well, facts are stubborn things. 

It is crucial to take reasoned, deliberate action based upon the clear, indisputable facts of the situation. If you act based upon what you feel, you will have a miserable, erratic life, because emotions are influenced by a host of factors, including: 

– Fatigue

– Stress

– Hormones

– Medication

– Diet

– Trauma

– Age

– General health and wellbeing

Emotions are not necessarily bad – they are an integral, inescapable part of being Homo sapiens. In many cases, feelings can enrich the human experience – such as the joy of love for a dear one, or excitement over a victory won. However, when it comes to the emotional fallout of a failure or shortcoming, the experience can be rather debilitating, short-circuiting our cognitive pathways and acting a a catalyst for really bad decisions. Don’t react – act. Be deliberate, cautioned and reasoned in your response. 

Fourth, sleep on it.

Most failures appear far less catastrophic within a few days, so it’s wise to wait a good while before acting. I find that a good night’s rest can be like hitting the reset button on a computer – jumbled thoughts and emotions can become almost magically untangled. 

Unfortunately, I have a painful tendency to be rash in my response to personal failure. Better to firmly put aside your thoughts and ideas in reaction to the situation at hand, get some rest, and address it with a fresh perspective the next day. 


Fifth, talk to someone objective and trustworthy.

A trouble shared is a trouble halved. 

Talking through your challenge with an empathetic listening ear is of no little value. The listener may not have anything  of great insight to offer in return – no nuggets of wisdom to reshape your thinking. They may say nothing at all, which, in many cases, is the best response of all. Sometimes talking to someone else makes you hear the problem differently to how you’ve jumbled it in your own mind. Sometimes articulating it out loud to someone else brings clarity without them needing to say a thing! A sympathetic, non-judging, caring ear can provide just the sounding board you need to sort out your convoluted thoughts and see clearly. 

Not long ago, I had a perplexing problem on my mind, one that threatened to hijack all my powers of reason. It truly consumed my powers of attention, and I was quite overwhelmed. I brought the matter to a friend, and opened up in fragile candour. He listened attentively and patiently, offering very little in response. After some time, I realised what must be done, and a sense of calm replaced the spirit of anxiety that had crippled my soul. All it took was an empathetic listening ear. 

Last, when in doubt, say and do nothing.

Don’t react, in a knee-jerk way, but rather give yourself sufficient time to process. This way you can act purposefully, rationally and thoughtfully. An emotional, reactive response to trouble or failure is often going to make things worse. Never make a decision when your decision maker is broken! 

I remember an occasion about a year ago that someone close to me did something that greatly upset me. I was not a happy camper! I felt hurt, betrayed, and insulted. In hasty response, I penned a stinging email of retort. It was a caustic composition indeed! Thankfully, I saved the email draft, and slept on the matter. The next day, I quickly deleted the email, forever glad that my vitriolic reply had not been sent to someone dear to me. 

On another occasion, I had messed up royally in my role as a business analyst. I immediately thought to resign, being quite disgusted with myself and convinced that I was not fit for my position. I did not, however, take that drastic step. Rather, I exercised some self-compassion, reminded myself that the best of men are men at best, and came to work the next day as usual. 

In closing…

We all fail and falter. If not, we probably aren’t stretching ourselves. So, remember these simple thoughts when you don’t feel like a trailblazer:

  1. Separate fact from fiction
  2. Protect your mind and spirit by reinforcing the truth and tearing down lies.
  3. Act deliberately based upon what you know, not what you feel.
  4. Sleep on it
  5. When in doubt, say and do nothing

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