Saturday, August 24, 2019

Framing Failure

Here, let me give you a pep talk: You're going to fail. You're going to fail, you're going to fail, you're going to fail. Failure is assured. You're a screw-up, so it's not a matter of "if" but of "when" and "how badly".

This, counter-intuitively, is the mindset of people whose performance seems flawless. Having recognized the truth, they take appropriate measures to ensure that they fail well. Those who harbor delusions of perfection, on the other hand, fail poorly because they don't plan for it. They figure the game is about failing less. But they can't. None of us can.

Amateur musicians sometimes play out of tune. This is because they're trying to play in tune. If you try to play in tune, that means that when you fail (and you will fail!), you'll be noticeably out of tune.

Professional musicians don't try to play in tune. They're preoccupied with trying to play really, really in tune. So when they fail (and they will fail), they're still reasonably in tune, though not precisely enough for their standards. They'll wince, and feel like failures, but you won't hear it.

Amateurs conclude that professionals fail less. Wrong. They fail as often as anyone, but they work within narrower tolerances. We're all failures, but pros fail well.

Someone in my life is notorious for doling out vicious tongue-lashings. She thinks of herself as kind-hearted and full of bubbly good cheer. But like anyone else, she inevitably gets mad sometimes. And while she may not be trying to chew people out - honestly, she'd rather not, because it creates problems for her - hey, sometimes we all lose our cool and find ourselves screaming our heads off to tell people what awful wicked stupid lowly fucked-up awful slovenly thoughtless pigs they are, amiright?

Again, she tries not to do this. But if you try not to do something, that means you'll do that thing whenever you fail. And, yet again, failure is inevitable.

She figures that the rest of us, who don't do this sort of thing, simply fail less often. But that's not it. It's that we're playing a different game; a different framing. We aim to never reveal a trace of disgust or disappointment or fury. When we fail, you may notice a curled lip or a long exhalation, but control is more or less maintained. Not enough for our standards, so we'll be kicking ourselves; chalking it up as failure even though we haven't brutalized anyone.

You're going to fail. Failure is assured. You're a screw-up, and it's not a matter of "if" but of "when" and "how badly". I think every human being fails with more or less the same frequency. It doesn't seem so because we all frame failure differently, which makes results vary widely.

Those who imagine perfection to be achievable are the most obvious screw-ups. They're aiming not to if that were possible. And, inevitably, they do.

Those who acknowledge their inevitable flawedness (not in a whiny, defeated, depressed way) are the ones who perform well. They've planned for failure, so it expresses as fine-grained malfunction rather than full-blown catastrophe

Last night I sat slumped in shame, knowing I'd strayed far from my diet. I'd gone nuts. I'd blown it all up. But then I did the thing I do every night, reviewing every bite eaten that day and considering the larger picture of it all. Perspective!

Here are the results:
  • Bowl of low-sugar, high-fiber cereal with skim milk
  • 1 thin hamburger, no cheese, no fries, from Shake Shack
  • 1 kasha knish from Knish Nosh
  • 3 chocolate rugelach from Andre's Hungarian Pastry (I'd normally never order this at Andre's, but they were perhaps the best thing I've eaten this year. They were mesmerizing; I nearly fainted from the deliciousness.)
  • Two fried chicken thighs, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese from Rocelyns, a good-looking soul food takeout that just opened on E Lincoln Ave just off the Hutchison Parkway in Mt. Vernon.
  • 1 no- fat yogurt
  • 2 reheated tortillas
  • No soft drinks or adult beverages; only water.
This was very far from optimal (and 2800 calories by my reckoning). But I had to admit that, as blow-outs go, this was fairly restrained. This was not quite a quart of Häagen-Dazs, or an entire large pizza, or a weekend of beer and barbecue. But I'm particularly remorseful because I've narrowed to the point where this is not merely the sort of eating I avoid. It's more of a second-order failure. A failure of failing, like a noticeably out-of-tune note from a professional musician.

My problem going forward is that framing adjusts to recent experience, so this style of eating could easily become my new normal - or, more insidiously, my normal avoided failure, i.e. the way I eat when I fail (and I will fail!). If this becomes the thing I avoid, I'll have widened tolerances and redefined failure. I'll eat like this a few days per week.

If tolerance does widen, a habit is established, but it's a habit of framing, not doing. The doing proceeds from the framing. I'm burying the lede here, but all habits are habits of framing.

And this is good news, because framing's infinitely, instantly, and effortlessly pliant, if only we can remember that it's under our volition and not something imposed upon us. When we forget this, tolerances appear to widen of their own accord - beyond our control - in the aftermath of every fried chicken binge as we powerlessly watch behavior shift. That becomes the thing we must not do. Which means it becomes the thing we sometimes do. Framing!

It's hard to deliberately not eat the pizza, because trying to forcefully change behavior is like wagging the dog. It's much easier and more effective to reframe tolerances.

Your Body's Just Trying to Accommodate You

1 comment:

Display Name said...

Good job not figuring you have blown your diet anyway so might as well keep chowing down. A lot of people on diets do this. Excellent not drinking any calories. Cheaper too.

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