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Are you good at celebrating your wins? How about taking responsibility for your failures? Balancing those two is a key to long-term success. If you only do one, you’re doomed to repeat mistakes. The other can make you miserable. If you can do both well, you’ll almost certainly achieve your goals.
For me, graduation season brings this struggle to the forefront. Graduation night is a time of celebration. Graduates are energized, filled with positive nostalgia, and/or ready to leave and tackle the world. Families are over the top with pride, hope, and support. It’s amazing.
I’m not immune to this. I even wrote last week about trying to choose a graduation gift for my nephew. I love the energy and am proud to participate in many graduation ceremonies in a professional role. I attended one this week that made me cry, swell with pride, and feel real hope for students who previously had failed out of school. It was amazing and inspiring.
Yet, after each ceremony I suffer a sleepless night.
Everyone sees the happy graduates crossing the stage. They’re thrilled and celebrating. I feel all of that.
At the same time, I see ghosts. I’ve been fortunate to work in the same area for my 20-year education career. I followed the second- and third-graders I taught and know which ones made it and which ones didn’t.
As a principal, I worked with thousands of kids over the years. Most walk across the stage, but far too many don’t.
And for several years now I’ve worked at the systems-level. And I know our system doesn’t graduate everyone. In fact, did you know that 15% of students who enter high-school don’t graduate on time?
So, while I recognize and celebrate all the students I’ve successfully served, I also see ghosts of those I’ve failed. I see gaps in the graduation procession. And I feel it. Hard.
The Dangers of Focusing on Failures
We know it’s easier to focus on failures than celebrate successes. And that negative events feel about twice as bad as positive events feel good.
So, truly owning failures can be dangerous. For me, it’s a constant challenge. It’s easy to slip into dark moments, or despair of ever truly changing anything.
A relentless focus on your losses can keep you from improving.
In personal finance, we see this sometimes with people who end up so deeply in debt that they never see a path out.
Or, a focus on a missed opportunity that leads to reckless choices later. “If only I’d invested in Amazon in 1990. I better throw money at this new hot startup I’ve heard about on Twitter.”
A focus on failure can be paralyzing, demoralizing, or lead to recklessness. Some use this as a reason for relentless forced optimism.
The Dangers of Only Celebrating Success
I worked with a high school principal who experienced graduation very differently. He loved the energy and attention. He used any improvement in graduation rates to talk publicly about the work he was doing, his amazing leadership, and how great the school was.
Graduation rates did improve during his time as principal. For some kids. The gap between affluent students and those from poverty or non-white students actually got worse. But, he refused to focus on anything except the topline graduation rate.
While he claimed any improvement in the rate was the result of his work, any drop in the rate was someone else’s fault. A tick down in graduation was the fault of the system for underfunding the school, the union for blocking some workload requirement, or the families for not valuing school.
It was ugly. And, it’s not unusual human behavior.
For your finances, this is how you fall prey to outsized risk. You invest on upside, not downside. You “invest’ in things that aren’t good investments. You miss opportunities to do even better. A 2% increase is a win – but could you have made 7% instead?
You make more money (yes!) but the spending leaks continue and grow.
If you celebrate only success, you are missing out on important opportunities for improvement. You aren’t acknowledging weaknesses, blindspots, or bad choices.
Can You Find a Balance?
I struggle with this. I feel the misses more than the hits. I nod at a success and then quickly look for the next problem to solve.
This has mostly served me well. I accept responsibility for failures, both my own and systemic, and relentlessly attack problems. I know I’ve made changes that will benefit a huge number of students. It’s also pushed me close to despair or burnout several times. And it wears on my personal relationships.
As I get older, I’m trying to get better at balancing.
Here’s how I think about it now:
- Take a moment to intentionally focus on wins
- Praise the efforts of others when celebrating wins
- Name the misses only after recognizing progress
- Frame misses as opportunities for improvement not failures
- Pay attention to trends, not one time data points
- When I feel that sense of failure, I identify one thing I can immediately work to change. This helps me avoid spiraling or becoming overwhelmed by the immensity of the task.
By being intentional about celebrating success and owning failure, I can recognize the good in my life (and the world) while still working towards change. It helps me balance my mood better and make more effective decisions, and doesn’t wear on those around me in the same way.
I try to apply this to all areas of my life. While I’ve mostly focused on professional implications, it’s also made a difference in our personal financial progress.
A spending misstep is an opportunity to do better next time, not a reason to to make even more mistakes.
Choosing to rest instead of hustle for more money is a long-term play, not a short term failure. I have more energy to pursue more substantial opportunities.
Investment growth is a long term trend – short term losses or gains don’t matter. I don’t lose sleep over market drops and instead watch the upward trend.
A Specific Practice
I recently learned about a mindfulness practice called Three Good Things. I’m working to implement it to help me better focus on success. As I’ve explained, I have no problem owning failures! In this practice, you write down three things that went well that day, in as much detail as you can remember, how they made you feel, and any casual links you see. A variation includes noting specifically how YOU contributed to the positive outcome.
Thinking intentionally about the balance between celebrating success and owning failure has helped me approach my work, and life more positively.
I still lose sleep on graduation nights though.