Early this year, a close friend of mine, Rajiv, had his eyes set on finishing the Mumbai half-marathon (approx. 21 km) in less than 180 minutes.
So, crossing the finish line in 160 minutes was something of a major triumph for him. He was genuinely happy.
One another friend, Sameer, ran the same distance and recorded the exact same time of 160 minutes. However, this guy wanted to cover the distance in 150 minutes or less. Consequently, he was shattered.
He described his experience as a massive failure and as a result, his mind and body language were both a reflection of his belief (the belief that he had failed).
Sameer could have labelled his run many things but he chose ‘failure’.
He labelled it a failure. He believed it a failure. He lived it a failure. Subsequently, he was genuinely miserable.
The Labels We Live
As an investor, I have been guilty of living a labelled life many times over in the past. So when I expected a 20% annual return and ended up with 21%, I proudly labelled it ‘victory’. But when I expected a 30% return and closed with 25%, it was miserably labelled ‘failure’.
Over the years, I’ve come to realize the immense power in the labels we put on each of our life event.
I could have called my ‘failure’ a lesson, or simply, an experience. In reality, my misery was not about the stock I picked or the return I earned; it was about me. Like in Sameer’s case, his misery was not about the run or the time he clocked; it was about him.
If the time (150 minutes) was the cause of the misery then everybody who recorded that time would have ‘failed’ also. Clearly, they didn’t. Like everyone who earned a 20% return from that stock wasn’t a failure just because a moron (that is me) expected to earn a 25% return!
You see, our miseries in life are not about poor returns we earn in investing or slow time we post in marathons but rather the labels we attach to each of our achievements, and the herculean power we give to such labels.
We are just a speck in this wonderful creation of God called Earth. But the size we accord to a small failure (or even a success) is sometimes bigger than what the entire Universe can hold into itself.
Can You Choose NOT To Fail?
I have learned a lot of life lessons just seeing my daughter grow up. Like when she was just a year old and was trying to take her first steps and repeatedly fell down, she tried again…and again…and again.
Sometimes she laughed. Sometimes she cried. Sometimes she laughed and cried at the same time. But she kept trying and trying…laughing and crying.
She did not labelled her experience. She just enjoyed it.
Unlike us adults, our babies don’t know the possibility of a failure, so they happily keep falling down until one day they take a few steps, and then a few more. Before long, they’re jumping and running. All their trying pays off.
They fall but never fail.
As grown-ups, what if we also simply choose not to fail?
As an investor, what if you can shrug off a loss from a stock, tell yourself, “Well, let me take the lessons from this mistake (if it was a mistake) and work better to find another opportunity,” and simply let it go – instead of saying, “Oh, investing is not my cup of tea, so let me avoid it!”?
I think the biggest problem we all face in our lives – investing or otherwise – is that we fear to start doing things just because we fear to fail…because we give too much power to the label of “failure”.
What life has to teach us is that stuff happens, but we don’t need to give each of our experiences a label. Good, bad, hard, easy, success, failure etc. do not exist but as labels in our minds. All we need to do to hold our head high is to break through these labels.
Anyways, I want to leave you with a beautiful video I watch every time I am feeling down. This guy is living an “unlabelled” life, and how beautifully he’s living it!
And here is J.K. Rowling at Harvard in 2008, speaking about the benefits of failure, and how she dealt with them in her own journey from living the life of a young divorced mother near poverty to becoming the creator of a series of books that have sold more than 400 million copies, earned her over a billion dollars and created the opportunity for her to do what she’s here to do…
Rowling says (emphasis mine)…
…why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned…
If you have ever failed in life or investing, and recovered, you will clearly understand what Rowling says in this lecture. And if you haven’t failed as yet (which seems impossible), you will be better prepared for the future.