It’s uncanny how many people perceive the title of this chapter as being negative. To “prepare for the failure”, to me, is to prepare for the reality of life and to deal with it. Life is full of failures or failings. From the moment we first try to stand up (and fall) as a baby, to our first business startup or our first kiss, we are destined to fail before we succeed. Being prepared for such failures can reduce the pain and go a long way towards preventing or reducing our next one. To prepare for a bush fire, tsunami or earthquake would not be perceived as being negative. To have a spare parachute as a skydiver or going for an annual checkup is being proactive in our thinking, and entails being aware of the potential for failure. So why is it that when it comes to relationships, we do not prepare for the failure and worse still, why do we see such preparations as unnecessary, unproductive and negative in outlook? Rethink Perfect is intended to answer these questions and shine some light on the consequences of a lack of preparation for failure. As Benjamin Franklin (and Winston Churchill) put it, “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
Prepare for the Failure: How do we prepare for all the possible failures that might occur in relationships?
It is inevitable that we will fall short when trying to explain how we would like to be treated within a relationship. After all, these are new thoughts and feelings, and we need practice to be able to share them. As they say, practice makes perfect. Of course this book could be another one of those failed attempts, and it is no doubt riddled with errors and inconsistencies that could stand improvement. However, it is through this understanding of our fallibility and preparation for it that we are more likely to be proactive rather than reactive to failures within a relationship. I have said before that I think that the people that talk about the merits of hindsight are far less likely to use their foresight. It is this foresight or awareness of our potential to fail while in a relationship, and the uncertainty this can bring, that I am hoping to address throughout this book.
Now some of you may say that my focus is too much on the negative effects of failure, and others may say that I am planning for the perfect relationship. Either way, hold that thought and try to rethink it, and maybe we will end up close to the centre of them both. Either way, I am bound to fail most of the time, as I doubt that I will touch on, for long, a perfect balance between the two poles. I think we get frustrated and aggressive with a person when we expect perfect action from them; reciprocal aggression makes the other not much different. Getting an agreement to help each other out of our unreasonable expectations or certitude is paramount before moving forward in a relationship, I think. Otherwise, it is death by a thousand expectations of perfection.
Growing Apart: Ask someone today why their relationship failed and they will usually come back with the well-worn cliché “We grew apart”. Saying that we grew apart, I think, is akin to saying, “It fell out of the sky!” when asked, “Why did the plane crash?” Of course you grew apart, and of course the plane fell out of the sky, but why? Rethink Perfect is my attempt to plan the perfect relationship by explaining why failures occur in relationships, and is based on my own personal experience in an experimental relationship that I entered into specifically to test my theories on love and relationships; theories that I had to completely rethink afterwards, and an experience that has allowed me to “data mine” over the last 11 years, so as to redevelop Rethink Perfect. It is also based on studying my brother’s personal relationship with his partner, which lasted for ten years, and on his personal participation in acting as a sounding board for my concepts. And finally, all the hundreds of conversations I have had with people who have experienced failed relationships and the failures within their relationship, (no shortage there), have contributed to this thesis.
Now, some of you also may ask, “Why not focus on the over 50% ‘successful’ relationships instead of the failed ones?” A good point, but who can tell how successful a relationship really is? It is what goes on behind closed doors that is very hard to observe, as we all strive to keep up appearances. At least with failed relationships, there is much more transparency, as it is pretty hard to hide. My favorite question used to be to ask divorcees whose fault the demise of the relationship was, and on most occasions they would point their finger at the other and say “30 -70” or “40 – 60”. This gave me a real insight into a possible reason for why the relationship failed. I have always said that we are not the victim of the person that we choose to be with, but the victim of our own choice. No point in blaming anyone else for my failed relations. I prefer a 50-50 point of view. As my dear old mum says, “You make your bed, you lie in it”.
Positive and Negative, Failure and Success: So why do we see “preparing for the failure” as a negative? Well, it could be due to a number of reasons, but the age of so-called “positive thinking” probably has a lot to do with it. Also, religion has contributed to this form of thinking. For example, if things go well for us, it was because of our god and that we pleased him; if things fail, it was because we have displeased him. In reality, the probability of us succeeding or failing is directly linked to how well or not that we prepared. The rest is just superstition with a degree of luck thrown in for good measure. How we deal with chance or luck and the language we use also contributes to this thinking. We seem to live by false dichotomies, that is, good and bad, right and wrong, success and failure, with very little nuance in between. If we are not successful, then are we failures? Or if a business is not a failure, then is it a success? Don’t worry, I am not saying that I am immune from this form of thinking. I am writing from experience as an ex-born again Christian from ’83 to ’85, who has finally seen the light or is seeing the light a bit more clearly. Failure and success are mere concepts, and this chapter will give you my slant on these concepts and how they affect relationships.
First thing to realise is that it is not “our” failure, it is the systems, processes and their parts we chose to use, or that are around us, that fail. It is not “our fault”, it is a fault of these systems and parts that we chose. Heck, when you think about it, we don’t even fail when we die -it is just that our heart, lungs or other body parts fail. Preparing for these failures, by looking after our heart, lungs and body, generally can keep us alive longer. We don’t need to blame anyone or any one thing for the failure, we just need to prepare for how we choose the system’s parts and processes around us so that we get less failing parts, less often. Failure is not personal. It does not have a conscience. It doesn’t happen because we are good people or bad people. It happens for a number of reasons, one of them being our lack of preparation. It is not god that kept it from failing, or the devil that made it fail. We just need to choose to be more prepared for the failure, and choose well.
Fear of Failure?: There are not too many people that have not heard about the negative effects of fear. But what is fear? Fear is what keeps us alive. Fear of dying, fear of pain and discomfort. Fear of confusion and fear of not knowing or uncertainty. Then we have irrational fears such as paranoia and various phobias. And then we come to fear of failure. My definition of fear of failure is broken up into two parts:
- Fear to lose other i.e. fear of losing what we have or think we have (Existent).
- Fear of losing self i.e. fear of losing our future time and energy (Potential).
To me these are quite legitimate fears, but do need to be understood and executed with this knowledge and awareness. If we fail to prepare and gain such understanding, we are likely to allow our two fears of failure to effect us in a negative way rather than positively. (See diagram below. In a relationship, an awareness of our two fears of failure can help keep us more often in the grey zone and away from the black zone.)
Rethink Perfect is about realising that we don’t fail, but we may have failed thoughts and attempts. The language we use to describe failure is part of the systems or processes that can lead to failures. If after reading this book, you fail to increase your preparations and understandings of failure, it will be due to my failure to convert my concepts into agreements with you.
So, why do we seem to assume that the word “failure” is associated with the person? Why is it that we are so quick to label someone that has not achieved their goal a “failure”, rather than identifying the systems or processes that we used that were responsible for the failure? I guess that is an easy question to answer. However, as it takes work to analyze what went wrong and why, and work means energy and time. Fundamentally, I suppose we all want to conserve time and energy, especially if it is our own. Following the path of least resistance, once again. It seems that the certainty of blaming and labeling others, instead of examining ourselves and how we look at failure, can be seen as the simplest and easiest way.
Rethink Perfect, is about how we can prepare for failure between people at work, in business or relationships by identifying and understanding these processes. It is not about simply generalising and using clichés, by saying that “we have to communicate more”. This is as broad a statement as saying “we need to fix the engine” when a plane crashes. It is more about identifying the key part/s of the systems and processes that we use during communication in relationships (adjustable language and agreements, for example) or inside the workings of the engine (fuel filter redesign, for example). It is the preparations that we suggest as possible fixes, appreciating the possibilities of certain weaknesses and doing something about them before they occur, to prevent the ultimate failure of the relationship and plane (commonly called preventative maintenance).
It will be the failures that occur when testing out your new procedures that are ultimately going to help you learn to understand what caused them and how to prepare for future failures.
What is a “phase transition” and how does it apply to relationships?
A phase transition is what Michael J. Mauboussin refers to in his book Think Twice, when talking about the millennium bridge “failure” or design flaw. The bridge was designed and built with a flaw, so that when more than 165 people crossed it, the bridge began to oscillate from side to side. When only 155 people were on the bridge, the movement was not so noticeable. It was this phase of adding just 10 people that created this extreme phase transition.
Another example of a phase transition in nature is the transformation of water into its various states. We could also use the analogies of the “straw that broke the camel’s back” or “the last straw”.
Well, we all know that this happens in relationships too, don’t we? How many times have we heard the loud and unpleasant screech, “I’m sick of this”? We may have engaged in the same behavior five times previously without hearing a peep, but just one more time and bam! we’re supposedly in trouble.
Phase transitions are used to explain and predict catastrophic failure that can occur, such as an economist might use to prepare for a crash in the stock market.
I guess anyone that is separated or divorced will understand the concept of phase transition. One day you are there, and the next day you’re not, and you find yourself wondering how your relationship got to this point without you realising you were headed for a fall.
So, what caused the phase transition of the millennium bridge? Simple. As the bridge began to sway, the people on it widened their strides to counter the oscillation. They unintentionally did this in unison with the oscillation, which created even more sideways motion until it became extreme.
It was their “coordinated behavior” or lack of diversity in movement that created the problem in the system (and the design that did not prepare for the failure). It is the same lack of diversity that can occur in relations, which can eventually tip it over into a phase transition. The failure to speak up and inject diverse thinking into the relationship, instead of making it more secure, can in actual fact set it up for a catastrophic failure, over time.
How we inject and receive our diverse views (complaints), so that our dissent is accepted and ultimately agreed to, is what Rethink Perfect is about. The following chapter is how we go about Complaining Responsibly.
The phase transition in a relationship might be when it is stressed to the point that it deforms as in the following diagram, going from Reasonable Uncertainty to Unreasonable Certainty:
The effects of unreasonable certainty (black zone) and how it deforms the relationship.