How to Never Fail.

There is an entire multi-million dollar industry built upon getting organized, being productive, and achieving your goals. Just the very fact that there are so many different courses, applications, and seminars tells us one thing — people are still not achieving their goals.

I don’t think the issue is the tools we have at our disposal but the goals we try and accomplish with those tools. After all, we all have enough computing power in our pockets in the form of smartphones to plan and execute a space mission, so it should be more than enough to help us organize and achieve our personal goals.

I think the real problem lies in the fact that we set ourselves goals that are either unachievable or that have an outcome that is not controlled by us. The philosopher Epictetus gave us a way to become invincible:

You can be invincible if you do not enter into any contest in which victory is not up to you.

While this may appear inherently pessimistic, I hope to show that it can be anything but.

How to Never Fail Again

Wouldn’t it be amazing to never fail again? They say that we learn from our mistakes, but that doesn’t have to mean that we have to fail in reaching our goals.

There are two methods that can guarantee that you will never fail.

The first is simply to completely change the way you set your goals. You need to set internal goals instead of external goals.

What does this actually mean?

It all goes back to what we can and cannot control.

Everything falls into three categories:

  • Things we can fully control
  • Things we can partially control
  • Things we cannot control.

The only things that we can fully control are our thoughts and our actions (and even those, at times, can be incredibly difficult to control). Everything else is, at best, partially controllable or else fully uncontrollable. Some things may give the illusion of being controllable but they are actually not.

So how does this link in with the way we should set our goals?

It’s simple, we should only set our goals based on what we can fully control, namely our thoughts and our actions. I call this setting internal goals because it’s all about you.

The problem with setting external goals based on things that you cannot control is that you might do everything right and you are likely to still not reach your goal thus setting yourself up for a potential failure and there is very little you can do about it.

For most people, this clearly means a large change in the way they view their life. The switch from “I want to win this race” to “I want to do the best I can” appears deceptively simple. In reality, it’s perhaps one of the hardest things you can do. It requires constant self-examination and it will be years before you think like this in a natural manner. Do not be discouraged by the time it takes, that in itself requires a shift in your perspective of time. I’ve written about how you should think in higher time frames and also how to completely change the way you think about time.

I promise you that once you do start making this change in the way you think you will start to notice how absurd we are as a society in the way we set goals and plan ahead. We create forecasts for things that are wildly outside of our control and use all kinds of mathematical and scientific reasoning to try and back it up. Don’t buy into it. Nobody knows what’s going to happen tomorrow, no matter what they tell you.

Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect.

Mark Twain.

I find that often people ask me if this doesn’t mean that one will become wonderfully under ambitious and perhaps in the traditional way of looking at things it may well appear that way. I think it’s important to remember that we should aim to achieve things that are meaningful and not just try to impress other people by the job title we have or the number of things we have managed to collect.

Ironically, you might find that you start achieving some of the external goals that you had once set yourself. By not focussing on making money but just doing the best you can in your life’s work, you might just realize that your bank account has a few more zeros than it used to.

Another example is the student who instead of studying to pass an exam, studies to learn the subject as well as he possibly can and then finds that as a byproduct he scores highly on his exam paper.

Life is strange like that, when you try really hard to get something it appears impossible to reach but as soon as you stop trying, it magically floats your way. This is probably due to the fact that you start concentrating on the things that truly matter and forget about the things that don’t.

Of course, setting internal goals does not guarantee that you will achieve what you want to achieve. After all, we, as a species, are notoriously lazy, badly disciplined, and prone to distractions. This is where the second of the two methods steps in and makes sure that we never fail.

Break it down

Breaking long-term goals or projects into small steps is not a new strategy. In fact, it’s advice that has been regurgitated ad nauseum in almost all popular lifestyle magazines. The only problem that I have with this advice, is that it doesn’t go quite far enough. It’s a step in the right direction but it doesn’t address the fundamental problem of procrastination or the simple fact that some tasks appear daunting and impossible even when broken down into smaller tasks.

My approach in this matter of breaking goals is radically different and has the advantage of being incredibly simple. It is so simple that I can summarise my entire system in one sentence.

Break down goals into such small steps that it is impossible to fail.

That’s it — I told you it was simple.

The only problem that I have found is that people don’t take this advice literally enough. You shouldn’t just break things down into simple steps, you should ensure that you will complete these steps because they are so small and so simple.

If you flip this concept on its head, you come to the realization that you are guaranteeing yourself success in everything that is under your control.

I use this system all the time. I’ve even used it to get myself motivated to write this essay. I decided I was going to write five hundred words in the first sitting and then do something else. It’s such a small task that I couldn’t possibly put it off because it can be done immediately and it doesn’t take much time.

So what are the criteria for creating such an easy goal that it is impossible to fail to achieve?

Well, firstly it needs to be just one step and it should be specific. “Write five hundred words of this essay” is a specific step while “Create Strategy Plan” is too obscure and vague to be effective.

So the two steps to never-failing again:

  • Set internal goals based on what you can control (i.e. your actions and thoughts)
  • Break down these internal goals into the smallest, simplest steps possible so you cannot possibly fail to complete that step.

Enjoy, and remember:

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Lao Tzu

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