‘Every failure is an opportunity to learn.’ It’s one of my favourite sayings. State Emergency Service (SES) members I have trained over the years have heard me say it many times over, and for good reason. Fear of failure can hold us back. While the goal is obviously to succeed, the reality is that every time we try something, no matter how hard we’ve worked, prepared or trained, there is always the possibility that we’ll make a mistake, or something completely out of our control will happen, and things won’t go as we planned. But no matter the outcome of any of our endeavours, we live and learn throughout our lives. If we take the time to reflect on the situation, without guilt, blame or shame, then we can take something from the lesson’s life is trying to teach us. Do we make the same decisions next time and hope for the best, struggling along the way, or is there something we can change, and perhaps do differently next time, to facilitate a better outcome?
I like to think about it as making the choice between walking down two roads. One of them may have once seemed like the best path to go down, and it may even start off really well… with a nice view over a valley, smooth pavement under your feet, and you may think it leads to where you want to go. But sometimes, when we walk that road, we discover that it’s not the great route we once thought it to be. As we go along, we find potholes – some big enough to fall into. The journey become tedious as it twists and turns in ways we didn’t expect, snakes appear, cattle blocks the path, and storm clouds darken overhead. We might eventually get to where we need to go, despite the obstacles, or we may not, and have to turn back. But one thing is almost certain… at some point we’ll be faced with the option of walking that road again. Sometimes, we choose what’s easiest and known; in fact, our brains are wired to want to make the easiest choice. It takes work to create new neural pathways and if there’s already one in existence which will get the job done, then for the sake of efficiency, that’s the one our brains will favour. To put it another way, our brains are lazy. But we don’t have to do things the same. We can choose to walk a different road, as scary as the unknown may sometimes seem, and create new neural pathways in the process.
Now, there’s no guarantee that the new choice we make, or the new road we take, will be any better. But one thing is certain – the old road will not change. When faced with an impending journey or choice, it’s this knowledge that can sometimes lead to strong feelings including fear and panic, as the brain tries to warn us about the possible impending dangers. Sometimes the levels of chemicals that the brain releases in the attempt to ensure our survival is appropriate, however sometimes, for a host of different reasons, they are not. This manifests as the experience of anxiety, which can sometimes lead to crippling feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. Cautiously walking that old dark road, hyper-vigilant for danger, there is the ever-present knowledge that there are holes big enough to fall into. The same obstacles will come up again and again; we just might get better at overcoming them, or we might give up and turn to avoidance. This fear can transfer too, so that walking a road that shares any similarities with the old one can be just as terrifying.
What if a new road was actually an easier way to go? The sky clearer, the warmth of the sun on our skin, and the fresh smell of the green grass just a bit sweeter. Butterflies gently fluttering over brightly coloured flowers, and fluffy little otters snuggling each other in a calm, sparking stream by our path. A pot of gold at the end of a rainbow… Wait, I think I’m going too far now, but you just never know. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. What if a new choice did lead to a much more beautiful experience? Would it be worth exploring? Trying something new can seem daunting or scary and is certainly hard work for our brains. In the efforts of not having to put-in the work to create those new neural pathways, our brains might delightfully try to tell us that ‘It won’t work,’ ‘You won’t be able to,’ or, ‘You’re a failure,’ But it is completely possible to prevail. Look around you and you’ll see examples everywhere of people who have learnt new skills, changed their behaviours, and overcome challenges in their lives.
Our brains don’t mean to cause us harm… they want us to thrive and survive. Like I said before, they are simply wired for efficiency. If we accept all our emotions, even the ‘bad’ ones, and lean into them, we can use that knowledge to our advantage. What is the emotion trying to teach us? If we carefully examine the fear or apparent danger and assess it logically, like a formal risk assessment carried out in the SES, then we can decide best how to approach it. Is the danger real? How harmful could it be? What measures can we put in place to minimise the risk? Is it an acceptable risk? For some things we will face in life the fear is proportional to the perceived danger, while other times it isn’t. Whether it is or not, can we take the opportunity to try a new, safer road? In other words, make different choices about how we approach the endeavour or experience. Remember, we live and learn. We could look at it as an opportunity to teach our brain that it, and you, can be safe, even on a scary journey. It might be really hard work for us consciously, as well as for our brain as it builds those neural pathways the first time. But knowing how lazy our brains are, one thing is certain… it will get easier every single time. Like a baby learning to walk or someone trying to learn a new language, the more we do something, over and over again, the more masterful we become at it, until one day it happens in-part without conscious thought.
I was inspired to write on journeys and how we live and learn by our two featured illustrators this week… one a teacher, the other a student. And both living tremendous lives of purpose. More than just a teacher, Rita Sinclair is a mum, daughter, sister, aunty and friend, as well as a beautiful artist. Rita was compelled to respond to the Remember illustration competition to honour her grandfather, uncle, cousins, neighbour and friends who have all spent time serving overseas in the various armed forces. She has witnessed the effect their service has had on families at home and how those that have served have struggled to adapt to life on their return. There are so many untold stories and Rita feels it is important to retain the human element in the story of war. To remember the sacrifices made for our freedom while they are away, but just as importantly to walk beside them in the dark times with PTSD and other issues when they come home. To look beyond the numbers and statistics and honour the people. A creative and compassionate soul, Rita is one of those special people who inspires others just by being who she is, making her little part of the world a better place.
On the other side of the classroom desk, a student and our other featured illustrator this week, Kiara Bird is making the world a better place too. She’s a member of the schools Senior Mentors and Leo’s Club, a member of the Gold Coast City Junior Council, and a youth group leader for children in grades 3 to 6. She has also just begun a traineeship in disability support. Along with all this, Kiara is currently studying year 11 including photography and visual arts, amongst her more academic subjects, and one day she hopes to study medicine at University. Having created a stunning illustration for Remember which almost brought me to tears, she enjoys art in all forms, always having her camera or a sketchbook with her, and she loves to challenge herself with all different mediums. What a great word… challenge.
Consider this… with anything in life, as J.K Rowling once said that if you never try, ‘…you fail by default.’ At least with an attempt, there is hope. When we accept that not everything is in our control, but choose to focus on the things that are, we can make the shift to a healthier perspective. In the SES, our practise is to always conduct a debrief based on these four ‘w’ questions – What was planned? What really happened? Why did it happen? What can we do better next time? I think this implies that failure on some level is expected. There is value so immense it is immeasurable, in learning from our mistakes. One of the most intelligent minds of our times, Einstein once said that doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result is the definition of insanity. If you’re walking a path, perhaps not for the first time, that is harder than it should be, or if you’re holding back from embarking on something new or a proverbial journey in your life because of the same fear which repeatedly holds you back, have you ever asked yourself, why? Just this week I talked to a lovely manager at Officeworks about my current charity project, and despite my nervousness and self-doubt, I asked if she’d like to offer some support. She eagerly and generously donated a wireless contactless & chip payment square reader, which means I’ll be able to take many book sales that I might otherwise have missed out on. It felt like a pot of gold to me.
Every time we repeat a choice or action, the formed neural pathway gets clearer and stronger, like repeatedly walking a path through a forest, and our brain will eventually prefer that path to the old one. Meanwhile, that old difficult way will be forgotten over time, as our highly efficient brains don’t keep things they don’t need, and the path will be become overgrown until eventually it can no longer be found. Franklin D. Roosevelt once said that ‘…the only thing we have to fear is… fear itself.’ With courageous outlooks, wisdom, positive choices and actions, we can make the most of the neuroscience behind our emotions. We never know what we are capable of until we try, and we don’t always have to have the whole path mapped out to begin a journey on a new road. When we live and learn, there is a way to move forward.
One step at a time.
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