I was sipping my morning coffee when I felt somebody tap me on the shoulder.
“Morning, Fred,” Zach, the cafe owner smiled. “You’re super early today.”
“Ahh yes, I have a lot in my mind,” I replied.
“Do you want to tell me about it? I am a good listener,” he said.
“Are you sure? I won’t say no to that.”
“Yes, of course.”
“Well, my work has been less than spectacular lately.”
“Honestly, I feel like a failure.”
“How long have you been feeling like this?”
“Ever since I lost my biggest customer last month,” I said. “I am a senior sales executive but I feel defeated and helpless.”
“Let me tell you a little secret, I am an expert in failing.”
“Haha, ok, I’m listening.”
“There are three things I am going to tell you. I call them: ‘Two Toxic Failures and A Poisonous Win’. Remember Fred, they might seem normal.” He looked rather serious. “But they are as dangerous as venomous snakes.”
“You mean we don’t see them as out of ordinary?”
“Exactly!” Zach sat next to me. “The first toxic failure is called ‘I Will Fail’. This is the time when you believe you will fail regardless of the situations.”
“Ahh, that is how I feel now. Hmm, it does feel normal.”
“Do you know why? Because you are telling yourself that. Your self-talk convinces your mind.”
“Yeah, I’ve been telling myself how much of a failure I am. So, you’re probably right.”
“You said you feel defeated and helpless. What makes you think that?”
“The world is obviously against me. I worked hard but I still failed. It’s not fair. What else can I do? It’s better if I stop trying.”
Zach poured himself a cup of coffee. “Fred, the world is neither fair nor unfair. Sometimes we get lucky but misfortunes happen too. You don’t get a special exemption, you know.” He sipped his coffee. “Staying where you are, doing nothing, will only yield nothing, nill, zero. Moving forward, on the other hand, carries with it the possibility of a brighter future.”
“The way you put it kind of makes sense. So, I don’t know if I will fail or not, but I need to try because doing nothing will yield nothing.”
“Yes, that’s the gist of it.”
“What’s the second toxic failure?”
“Haha, not so fast. I want you to go and dwell on it first.”
“Seriously?” I sighed.
I went to work thinking about how I kept blaming everything around me when I lost that customer. I blamed the product, customer service, bad timing, even my aftershave cologne for not smelling ‘right’. The more I thought about it the more I realised how utterly ridiculous it was.
The world was not against me. I could move forward.
The following morning, I was back at the cafe, eager for the next lesson.
“Fred, you’re back. Are you ready for the next toxic failure?” Zach smiled at me.
“Yes, I am,” I smiled back.
“The second one is called ‘I Have Failed’. This is the time when you still blame yourself for your past failure and it paralyses you. It is different from the first toxic failure which is ‘I Will Fail’.” Zach stopped for a second. “I Will Fail’ looks at a bleak future where everything is against you while ‘I Have Failed’ is about past failure and regret holding you back.”
“Whoa, I was doing that yesterday, here in the cafe. Regretting, being glum and gloomy.”
“Remember Fred, the past is physically unalterable. What we said and did, and everything else, happened because all the factors that were required for them to occur were present at the time. You cannot change the past, but you can change your perspective on it.” He poured more coffee into his cup. “Learn from it. The past has happened. Now it is merely data for your perusal.”
“That’s amazing Zach, I never thought about it that way. You’re right. I cannot change the past, but I can use the data to better my future.”
“Tell me about the poisonous win. Wait, you want me to go and ponder about the second toxic failure, don’t you?”
“You read my mind.”
I drove my car out of the cafe. I realised what was paralysing me all this time. It was the overwhelming regret of losing my biggest customer. The past was meant to happen and there was nothing I could do about it.
I could finally let go of the past and it was liberating.
Zach was waiting for me at my favourite table. He was reading the newspaper.
“Fred, you look fresh!” he said to me.
“Ahh, yes, I have been feeling much better in the last few days.”
“My pep talk seems to work then.”
“O yeah, it works!”
“You’re ready for the final lesson?”
“Yup, I am all ears.”
Zach put his newspaper away. “Ok, so this is the other side of the coin. This is the time when you feel you cannot fail. That you will always win.”
“Guess what, that’s how I felt before I lost my biggest customer.”
“Yup, it is common to feel that way before you fail. It’s the pride that comes before the fall. Those who believe in their invincibility will come to a shock when they realise that, like everyone else, they can break too.” He looked at me sharply. “Falling apart in the face of major stress is normal. It is humbling, and humility is an important ingredient to build resilience. Through humility, you are able to fall gracefully, only then you will come back with strength.”
“Wow, that is intense. I did feel deflated after I lost my biggest customer.”
“Yup, the fall must be hard.”
“Fred, I hope it helps. That is the last lesson. Let me know how you go in a week.”
“It does help. I have to go now, but I do feel much better. I think I am ready to move forward. Thanks, Zach!”
The following week I pushed myself harder. I kept telling myself that losing my biggest customer was an unalterable past and that’s ok. I had to leave all that behind. I must move forward to achieve a better future. There was no other way.
And I did.
I looked for Zach in the cafe. It was cold and I was so ready for a hot cup of coffee.
“Fred, good morning! How are you feeling?” Zach appeared from behind me.
“Hi Zach, you scared me a little there. You know what, our conversations really changed me.”
“First, I pushed myself to take a step forward, just one step. That one step then led to another one, and another one. Now, I am moving with speed and confidence.”
“That is great, Fred! Remember how gloomy you were last week?”
“Yes, no more of that. Thank you for helping me out.”
“Wait, wait, hold on. Do you want to know a little secret?”
“You did it yourself. You convinced yourself to take that step forward. And you did.”
“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.” — Winston Churchill
As published on The Ascent – Two Toxic Failures and A Poisonous Win