Failing smart: Dealing with life goals

Guest article from Maria Spießberger, founder d'accord coaching

Change brings us progress as individuals, but often scares us in our daily lives and contradicts our inner need for security and stability. We therefore often accept known unhappiness rather than seeking unknown happiness. I would like to shed light on this fundamental contradiction and how we can learn to deal with our progressively changing values and life goals.

The Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari writes in A Brief History of Humanity of the cognitive revolution (p. 11ff, Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2013), which elevated mankind mentally above other species. A fundamental part was the development of language, through which we could share and develop stories, myths, ideas and values. To this day, these serve as the basis of our collective identity. Whether in companies, communities, nations or religions, humans put aside individuality to agree on a common system of values and create a sense of We - the common denominator - that exists.

In the western capitalist value system, there are several linguistic examples of this common denominator in the form of socio-economic rules and norms we adhere to collectively. On social media channels this is particularly noticeable through the presence of quotations and idioms, which, among other things, systematically devalue the giving up of supposed goals: “Giving up is not an option”, “Just because it's hard sometimes you can't give up”, “Anyone can give up” and so on. Giving up something you have worked hard for is primarily interpreted in a generalized way as a sign of weakness and therefore frowned-upon in our society, although the actual definition of the word has a positive connotation: “to let go of something senseless, unattainable or only connected with destructive consequences, to end/stop/put it to rest; to let go of something contrary to the fixation of values and goals supported by the collective according to the motto: whatever it takes.”

When life goals or situations are thrown into doubt due to personal, social or mental changes, we should ask ourselves the following questions: Do my original goals and my current life situation still fit to my needs and values? In which areas of my life do I have the necessary freedom of movement for change?

“Do my original goals and my current life situation still fit my needs and values?”

By asking ourselves these questions we enter into an honest exchange with ourselves and can remain true to our developmental, ever-changing needs. This process is not always easy, but the supposed alternative - to act against one's changing, growing personality - does not bring happiness or satisfaction in the long run.

I myself have successfully achieved many of my life goals, only to fail again (often due to circumstances beyond my control) in the implementation of these goals. In contrast to the powerful attitude of interpreting this as a shameful, pejorative “failure”, I have recognized something new emerging in the course of my development. Instead of doing what I had always done until now - to keeping on giving, uncompromisingly, to the point of being exploited by others and ignoring my own needs - I gave up those lofty professional goals a few years ago. This was a powerful and painful experience that I would not want to miss. To make room for the unknown was essential for my authentic development. I realized that the word failure (scheitern in German) also offers an interpretation of “being smarter” (gescheiter) or “becoming smarter” (gescheiter werden). Every “failure” therefore contains the potential for developing more creative and intelligent alternatives. Meanwhile I am convinced, based on my own history, that it is possible to fail well and learn to do so ever more effectively. As Samuel Beckett wrote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail better.”

There is good reason why the subject of "destructive attachment" is central to many schools of thought in the history of humanity. Buddhism, for example, speaks of the deep suffering of holding on to things and goals at all costs. The Stoic philosophers viewed wisdom as the ability to distinguish between the good, the bad and the neutral, and thus to recognize the potential of what one can and cannot hold on to.

Take for example my personal case: I have always wanted to be a professional musician and composer, and did everything possible to achieve this until making it to study voice performance in New York City on a Fulbright Scholarship. Once I had finished my studies, it slowly dawned on me that I and the musical world in which I moved did not fit together. In the words of the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and his theory of the Habitus: I did not have the necessary social and symbolic capital in the sense of the wrong "pedigree"/"stable scent" (i.e. background) . I simply couldn't get into the insider circles necessary for a career. I had to accept that former colleagues overtook me with ease simply because of the marketable contacts they had established in the milieu they had been born into, even though according to my teachers I did not rank behind them in terms of my abilities. How could one not run the risk of becoming bitter? Just as so many women in the profession have to experience it daily, I too have felt the invisible glass ceiling for years - often with dubious justifications. I was able to successfully escape this long-felt threat to my wellbeing by finally realizing: the situation was simply not right for me. The communication scientist Schulz von Thun defines coherence as the harmony of the inner and the outer, i.e. being "d'accord" (in agreement) with oneself and the world. How should I raise my voice in a world that is not in tune with me? Admitting to myself that the dream I worked towards for 15 years no longer went hand in hand with my values and life concept was no easy task. Although I did not yet have any alternatives, I decided to make space and time consciously for new ideas and impulses. Thus, the composer in me sat down with a blank piece of paper and began to think, read, research, collect and play.

“Nothing is ever dreamed or achieved for nothing.”

Nothing is ever dreamed or achieved for nothing. My activities as a vocal coach, lecturer and performer continued during this uncertain phase, even though my mental focus was already directed towards my new undefined future. This change of perspective led me to team-building and subsequently to business coaching. Everything seemingly fit together effortlessly and after a few years of work on the content, D'ACCORD COACHING was born, with all the specialized services that can be found on my website today. Letting go of what had lost meaning for me helped transport me into an unexpected upward spiral, and into a world in which I and my environment can be d'accord - in harmony.

People are unique in their diversity, and there is no ultimate strategy to reach one's authentic self. However, I do recognize parallels and intersections in the many coaching methods on the market when it comes to reorientation, professional change and dealing with life goals. The following selection are suggestions for inspiration in this direction:

#1 Allow dreaming

Dreaming enables us to deal with our wishes and needs in a value-free way. How would a situation be if it was really good? Those who can imagine their 'ideal' life situation and allow themselves to dream will certainly gain new insights. Usually the voice of the inner critic comes to the surface very quickly, a part of our personality that looks at our “nonsense”/“whimsy” rationally and soberly, often devaluing and even sabotaging these dreams. This voice needs however to step back here as far as possible. Maybe nothing that feels right enough comes up initially and we have no idea what we want at all. Paradoxically, this is a clear indication that we are on the right track and the question is worth answering! Dreaming requires time and muse - and there are always alternatives. It is not for nothing that alternativlos (without alternatives) was voted German taboo word of the year in 2010!

#2 What of the above is doable

The Reality Check is the ground under your feet, and asks: What would have to happen to turn the dream into reality? In order to comprehensively assess this, we assess all our resources (and obstacles): Who can help? Which inner strengths can I mobilise? What factors can be influenced and what not? What would the first concrete steps look like? Who or what could prevent this, and how? Who or what would be beneficial?

#3 The inner critic

The inner critic has an essential function, when they voice their point at the appropriate stage and time. They have the clear interest to protect the self against danger and mistakes. Used correctly, they are a great team player, as long as they do not gain the upper hand. Thus, if any hurdles have been overlooked, it is now time to look again carefully and critically. Which objections and observations are productive and important before one comes to formulating concrete steps?

#4 Dream or wish?

With all things considered, it is now easier to see if the dream is right in reality, or if it is a wish for which 'the price is too high'. Even if you finally decide against the dream, it was worthwhile to put your goals to the test, because in the end the decision against the dream might be a decision for the current situation. To decide consciously for the tried and tested is as powerful as turning away. It increases the awareness for oneself and one's environment.

#5 First steps

The goal was carefully dreamed and examined, the resources were named, the inner critic was allowed to take a stand, and yet the idea of pursuing the goal still feels really good. It is time to formulate first steps. The path to the goal can be chronological, depending on the personality type (e.g. by 'date X'. the following steps have been completed) or structured according to information and experience. (e.g. speaking with 'person Y' to formulate next subgoals).

To conclude, I wish to quote the Greek philosopher Heraclitus: “The only constant in life is change” – although this statement is often contradictory to our desire for stability. Further to that I would like to quote another Greek philosopher, the Stoic Epictetus, who encourages us to make necessary changes. According to him, “... it is not things themselves that trouble us, but the ideas and opinions about them."

It is something in the nature of being human: we are creatures of conflict, contradiction, dilemma, and fear of the unknown. This makes it all the more worthwhile to examine how to free oneself from seeming needs and goals and allow oneself a fulfilled life. To phrase this a call to action: let us allow ourselves a fulfilled life.

There is a parallel episode on this topic in D'ACCORD podcast, accompanied by music from my former – both successful and failed – life goal.