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FAILURE
by Eric Carpenter

The thing I remember the most was the long silence. From the time the barbell came off the ground I heard nothing. I felt my knees sweep back and the bar come back to me. My chest was up, my hips exploded, huge pull, and I snapped under the bar. After that I have no idea what happened. My next recollection and the thing that haunted me for a solid year was the sound of those weights crashing down. It was as if someone had hit the mute button and then cranked up the volume before turning the sound back on. This was my first international weightlifting competition. It was the first time my family had come to see me lift. Ultimate CrossFit had even given me a nice send off on the blog (‘cause that’s how my gym rolls). And I had failed. To put a finer point on it, I did not just miss a lift. I was out of the competition. If you are not familiar with the rules of Olympic Weightlifting, you get three attempts at both the snatch and the clean and jerk. Miss all three attempts of either lift and you have done what weightlifters affectionately call “bombing out”. Your score is zero.

After the sting had worn off I spent a lot time thinking and reading about failure. What is it? How should I respond to it? I am blessed to be a part of a community that deals with this on a daily basis. I have been so inspired by those around me that I actually came to see what happened as a positive. Failure, it turns out, is a great gift that teaches us many things. Failure defines the edge of our current abilities. Failure allows for breakthrough discoveries. Failure builds resilience in a life that promises to sometimes be unpredictable and inhospitable.

Don’t get me wrong. Failure sucks. I much prefer success. Success and breaking through barriers is the sweet reward. But even success itself and the ceilings we constantly strive to overcome cannot take place without failure. As the often used expression goes “Until you go too far you don’t know how far you can go”. You know what your PR actually is? It’s one incremental weight below failure. Without failure it’s not a PR, its just a lift (or a race time, or a job interview or a home improvement project, etc.). Donny Shankle speaks brilliantly about this in a recent interview (pick it up about 27 min mark here) in discussing the “value of the miss”. He knows that he will need to make as many as 40 legitimate all out attempts at certain weights before he can go to the next level. It stings every time, but it’s the price of continuous improvement. Donny has become one of the best weightlifters in the world by being intimately familiar with both his best successful lifts and his attempts. The trick is to let failure define the edge of where you are and not where you can go or who you are.

Many great new finds in life are the result of being open to failure. My daughter rolls her eyes every time I announce that I will be attempting a new “short cut” as it usually leads to a longer commute. But sometimes we do find new routes. Or even better, a Shake Shop we didn’t know about. As athletes there are often more ways than one to get from “A” to “B”. When you fail repeatedly you find new ways, new approaches, new cues that help you or another athlete. There are things you can tell yourself to make your body move or grow stronger the way you need it to. When you do something you have done before, there is benefit. You are making that action more consistent and therefore more repeatable. This is necessary. But you are not actually learning anything new. You knew the outcome before you started. If you really want to learn something, you have to make mistakes. You have to fail.

Not everyone responds to failure in a positive way and none of us respond well all the time. Especially when the failure is the result of our own lack of discipline. But people of character will find way to turn failure into motivation. I tell the story often of Ultimate CrossFit member and coach Boone Duwel. Two years ago Boone participated in the first Crossfit Open. I was his judge for one of the events that had a heavy clean as one of the movements. The weight was way above Boone’s PR. But he showed up in front of everyone and tried. He failed. He tried again. He failed. He tried and tried until the allowable time ran out. If he did not execute at least one he was out. His goal had been to finish each event. He came in the next day and tried it again, and again, and again. He failed each time. I was his judge for his last attempt. When the time ran out I expected a slew of profanity at HQ, at the gym, at the movement, at me. I honestly thought he might even quit the gym. He wanted it so badly. However, his reaction was nothing like this. Boone literally got up off the floor and smiled at me. He just said “Well, I’m just going to have to get stronger for next year”. I stood there in total disbelief. This guy just got his teeth kicked in and he did it in public. But that is his character. He has learned one of failure’s most valuable lessons. Resilience. It’s an incredible gift and one of the biggest assets you can have in life. Force it on your children, your athletes and yourself. Who do you think is more respected at the gym, Boone Duwel or the guy with the heaviest clean? Your character will be defined by your reaction to failure and not in the failure itself.

This past June I walked back out onto the platform at the Masters Pan American Championships. The ghost of the bombing at 84 kgs was just about to get the boot. I was crazy nervous standing over that first lift. For a split second I questioned whether the decision to open at 85 kgs had been the proper motivation or arrogance. But I knew I had done everything I needed to do to make this happen. Lots of missed lifts were about to pay off. I had the jitters, but I had prepared. The bar came off the floor just like before and again I heard the weights come crashing down. But this time they came down from the finish position. Three white flags. A beautiful site. Now it’s time for new goals. Now it’s time to fail.

Success.

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