Graceful Failure Modes

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Within this post, we’ll define an “identity failure” as incongruence between your mental image of reality and your actual experiences.

When such an identity failure becomes particularly prominent or visceral, you become aware of this cognitive dissonance and typically suffer emotional harm. A simple example would be arriving home to find your supposedly faithful spouse of two decades cheating on you with your sibling; the pain of the violation of trust is amplified several times over by the sheer shock of the encounter and the resulting uncertainty about your self-worth, family life, and marital status.

As with any other brand of emotional stress, identity failures can have collateral damage. Possibilities for the “cheating partner” hypothetical might include breaking house furniture, dragging your kids into the argument, or the unfortunate trope of reactionary murder-suicide. A more relatable example might be getting rejected by a romantic interest that you were sure wanted to date you; plenty of people react poorly with hurtful words or throw away an entire social circle (centered around that person) out of spite.

No matter the extent or impact of the identity failure, everybody should develop “graceful failure modes” to mitigate their damage. We’ll take inspiration from the definition of a fault-tolerant design from Wikipedia and adapt it slightly to read:

A graceful failure mode enables a person to keep living productively and calmly, possibly with a reduced scope of identity, rather than failing completely when some part of their life fails or encounters a setback.

This potential for graceful failure is particularly important for anybody pursuing self-improvement (since they will inevitably stray into unfamiliar or unhelpful situations and philosophies as a cost of their personal experimentation), or who has developed a particularly distinctive personality (since the contrast will necessarily produce more clashes). Expect to fail, and plan for it well in advance so it hurts you less.

At this point, I may as well quote directly from the source that inspired this post*, with emphasis mine:

“My epistemic structure failed gracefully. For anyone who’s not overconfident, and so who expects massive epistemic failure on a variety of important issues all the time, graceful failure modes are a really important feature for an epistemic structure to have.”
– Scott Alexander

Mitigating the damage of identity failures has the obvious benefit of simply keeping your life intact. It shelters your happiness, and protects both tangible identity components (social networks, assets, career progress) and intangible identity components (self-perception, dreams, value in your accomplishments). Coping with failure in a healthy manner is a universally helpful trait.

Graceful failure modes also assist your self-improvement in three major ways:

    1. You have less “downtime” dealing with the stress of personal development and can get back into it sooner after a failure
    2. It’s easier for you to regard failure as a positive and productive experience, encouraging you to take further self-improvement action
    3. Your grace wins you more respect and tolerance from others, which you can leverage into feedback or simply a healthy social life

    Now that we’ve established a definition and imperative for graceful failure, let’s get into specifics of developing such a system.

    To do so, we’re going to conceptualise our identity as a web of interconnected “nodes”. Each node represents a distinct component of our self-image – our family life, job, sense of humour, history of trouble with police, house, taste in music, and so forth would all be individual nodes. Nodes may vary in prominence in the web (depending on their importance to your identity), and have varying strength or quantity of connections to other nodes (for example, you might tie your perception of self-confidence very heavily to your personal wealth).

    Here’s an example depiction of such an identity:

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    Incidentally, you might find it helpful to reread my article on creating an identity with this analogy in mind; it’s a lot more visual and fluid than the simple list of attributes and possessions you’d intuitively generate by running through the process I outline there.

    We’re now going to break down a graceful failure mode into two phases, Mitigation and Repair, which will then be broken down into three stages each. This is by no means a rigid framework that you need to follow in order (although it is roughly chronological), only a more structured away of writing this post for accessibility.

    When entering this process, you’ve just had a significant identity failure at one or more of the nodes in your network (perhaps you’ve been fired), which is now threatening to branch out into wider aspects of your identity (perhaps you’re doubting your ability to continue your hobbies accordingly). We’ll represent this crisis with red:web2So, how are we going to mitigate the risk this crisis poses to us?


    PHASE ONE – Mitigation

    The three stages in this phase are:

    1. Crisis Resolution
    2. Quarantine
    3. Time Out

    Crisis Resolution

    You aren’t likely to make good decisions under the pressure of a severe identity failure, and it is unwise to extend a situation that has already caught you off guard. Accordingly, your first priority is to defuse the crisis with no further unnecessary damage to that particular node or aspect of your identity, and then exit the situation.

    Cultivate and practice the skill of keeping a cool head in failure scenarios. My preferred approach involves an almost complete depersonalisation, where I set my identity and emotions aside and instead adopt an almost hyper-professional persona to resolve the emergency. The idea is to avoid further inflammation entirely by rationally and calmly pathfinding to the best available solution to the crisis: “I guess I’m losing my job. Alright, what severance pay am I entitled to and what are my options from here?” Your assumptions or beliefs or forecasts have failed to prepare you for the realities of life; try to accept the harm without trying to shift it onto others or find retaliation.

    Occasionally, though, a provocation of the crisis may be inevitable or even desirable for your self-respect. For example, if you loved your wife and found her cheating, you might need to yell a few harsh words to avoid feeling like a loser in retrospect.** Nevertheless, try to make sure your actions will be consistent with your identity in the long term, rather than purely fueled by emotion you’re experiencing in the moment. If you require more of a justification for your actions than “I feel like it right now”, you’ll probably naturally find yourself winding the crisis down after a short period of venting frustration. A general policy of “do no more harm” will also serve you well (in general, too!), since it forces you to have a damn good reason for any exception.

    You will usually have an opportunity to address or reopen the crisis at a later date, albeit in a different context. Minimise the time you spend fighting in disadvantageous or stressful circumstances; resolve them as quickly as possible so you can collect yourself and avoid unforced errors.

    EXAMPLE: You’ve accidentally insulted the host of a party, and are getting severe flak and hostility from the other guests. To resolve the crisis, you apologise to the host and then politely leave the party before the argument gets any more heated. The situation now looks a little less threatening:

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    Quarantine

    At this stage, one or more components of your identity are no longer immediately deteriorating in quality, but still risk causing flow-on damage to the rest of your identity. For example, my grandmother recently passed away (weakening a “family support” aspect of my identity), and the sadness and stress surrounding that event understandably undermined my social interactions for a while.

    That particular case is a very human and natural response that I don’t want to lose, but in most cases, you will want to insulate components of your identity against external shocks. If you got fired, it’s unhelpful to then become so depressed that your partner leaves you as well! The ability to maintain a stable network despite having a hole punched in it is critical for your resilience and eradicating negative feedback loops.

    Accordingly, I recommend temporarily “quarantining” damaged aspects of your identity. Maintain them as much as necessary (i.e. don’t pre-emptively leave your boyfriend!), but keep them mentally isolated from other aspects of your life. Be determined to maintain a positive and normal attitude as much as possible (or even a more positive attitude than normal – some people will find that deliberate overcompensation easier to manage).

    Part of this process also involves temporarily severing any links that damaged node has to your overall confidence. If a node was previously a strong source of self-esteem, your attention will naturally remain on it while it’s weak, and cause you unhappiness. Instead, identify what your other strengths are, and try to turn your attention to those instead.

    This is what I meant by “reduced scope of identity” in my definition earlier; if one portion of your identity is failing, stop using it to define yourself until you can repair it. I refer to this as the holy grail of confidence in The Self-Esteem Landscape – the ability to gain positivity from a trait when it suits you but immediately abandon it when it fails is an incredibly useful act of doublethink worth practicing. It’s much easier to be graceful about a failure that you don’t consider crucial to your sense of identity.

    EXAMPLE: You used to primarily think of yourself as the life of any party, but have lost a few friends over your horrible gaffe at the last one. Instead of lamenting this, you put your social life on the backburner and turn your attention to your fitness and work instead. Taking pride in your health and strong career helps you put aside your social problems as a relatively minor setback in life:

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    Time Out

    The saying that “time heals all wounds” certainly isn’t completely true, but does contain a kernel of truth – taking time away from a situation usually either resolves it, or makes its subsequent resolution a lot easier. Perhaps more importantly, it can stop you from rushing into poorly thought out “solutions” that only aggravate the problem or cause new ones. (If you’ve ever laid awake for hours at night preparing a wicked monologue to deliver to someone, only for it to backfire on you, you’ll know the feeling!)

    Being naturally analytical and having developed a fairly internal locus of control, it’s hard for me to follow my own advice here. It’s tough to accept that sometimes, the best action I can possibly take is to just do nothing for a while, fully collect my emotions, and use the distance to develop a clearer perspective on the issue and how it ought to fit into my life.

    One approach is to reframe this “time out” – it’s not really inaction, just a shift of priorities to maximise my efficiency of growth. If a girl has gotten far too into me is causing drama over her rejection, why should I invest hours of my time and all my emotional capital trying to restore that single friendship to normal? Far better to concentrate on my other priorities for a while, wait for emotions to reach low tide again, and see if it’s possible to pick it back up at a later date with much less effort.

    I also like this alleged Tupac quote:

    “You can spend minutes, hours, days, weeks, or even months over-analyzing a situation; trying to put the pieces together, justifying what could’ve, would’ve happened… or you can just leave the pieces on the floor and move the fuck on.”
    – Tupac Shakur

    You can decide how much time is necessary before you revisit an identity failure, but a useful metric might be the question “Does this seem like the biggest deal in the world to me?” If you’ve given yourself enough time off that you realise it’s a single issue in a whole world of possible experiences, successes, and failures, then you’re probably grounded enough to reengage. This might be hours, or it might be years, or it might be never. Don’t sweat it – just don’t fight these battles under duress if you can help it.

    EXAMPLE: The host of the party refuses to talk to you for a fortnight after you insulted them. Instead of constantly texting them trying to make things better, you give them some space to settle down. While you don’t approach them again yet, you notice that they’re significantly less pissed off in your presence, indicating the time has calmed the situation somewhat:

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    At this juncture, we’ve ideally managed the identity failure as calmly as possible, prevented it from ruining our entire life, and temporarily disengaged from the situation to regain focus and composure. This ability to acknowledge failure without letting it get the best of you is the core of any graceful failure mode; you want to strike a balance between denial (refusing to acknowledge the problem exists) and overinvestment (investing too much emotion in the problem and having it destroy your confidence).

    More broadly, the idea has been to stay extremely conscious of the fact that any individual identity failure is probably a relatively minor concern (compared to all our other concerns, and our entire lifespan), and regain a sense of control over the matter. We are deliberately choosing to confront problems on our own terms, rather than having our identity ripped away from us by the whims of fate.

    We’ve failed, but we haven’t lost. Instead, we’re going to adopt a winner’s attitude and begin repairing the situation to make that weakened node a strong component of our identity once again.


    PHASE TWO – Repair

    The three stages in this phase are:

    1. Damage Assessment
    2. Analysis
    3. Rebuilding

    Damage Assessment

    Having regained an objective and balanced state of mind, we can start determining exactly what needs to be repaired. Try to quantify or pin down the damage done, both within that specific component of your identity (e.g. you lost about half your strength after an injury) and any flow-on effects (e.g. your partner became less physically attracted to you).

    Keep in mind that this damage assessment is meant as a rebuilding tool, not a source of pessimism or fatalism. If tangible losses happen to be irreparable, try to generalise them into something more actionable:

    • My friend Sarah hates me now vs I lost a good friend
    • I got fired from ABC bank vs I lost a job in the finance industry

    On the other hand, it’s helpful to be as specific as possible about mental or philosophical impacts of the identity failure. One component of your identity might have been the belief that “chicks dig jerks”, which was then challenged by being loudly rejected by your crush for being too much of an asshole. In that case, you’d examine all your assumptions and beliefs about dating and figure out how badly they’ve been damaged by the evidence you’ve been given against them. Is it minor damage that will just require a small tweak to your beliefs, or an epiphany that your entire philosophy may be incorrect?

    These intangible damages are a lot harder to clearly distinguish, and will probably require dedicated brainstorming and soul searching over an extended period of time. This is balanced by the massive potential for personal growth they offer; in addition to your beliefs manifesting themselves in various actions across your entire life (as opposed to a single arena such as your interactions at work or with your friends), finding beliefs conducive to self-acceptance – and a sense of closeness to truth – is a much more stable path to happiness than self-improvement.

    I won’t give a more specific guide to self-analysis here; you can probably use the identity creation kit as a base, or simply let your thoughts wander. As long as you feel you have an accurate and fairly complete summary of how the identity failure hurt or impacted you, the damage assessment worked.

    EXAMPLE: The host of the party still isn’t talking to you, and their girlfriend actively seems to hate you now. You’ve actively started questioning if you’re a nice person, and have had some minor difficulty fitting in at work due to your nervousness to make jokes. Overall, the greatest damage was actually to your self-worth:

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    Analysis

    To fix these issues, we are going to tentatively reestablish links between these damaged components of our identity and figure out how to rehabilitate them. This requires you to tentatively start shifting your focus back to these aspects of your life, while being careful not to emphasise them so much that you start to lose confidence again. At this stage, it’s a problem you would like to solve, but not one you need to solve. We can do this either by retaking the way things were (e.g. getting a new partner) or finding a viable alternative (e.g. learning to be confident without one).

    You could start by analysing the past:

    • Did you miss any signals of the impending failure of part of your identity or belief systems? (Your partner was getting increasingly distant…)
    • Did the failure itself give you any clues for potential solutions in the future? (Your partner told you that teasing is fun but you just became mean…)
    • How did you develop that identity in the first place? (You were subconsciously getting most of your advice from all the lad culture FB pages you follow…)

    From there, you can shift your attention back to the present:

    • What relevant experience can you get that will help you? (You start flirting with new people and see if being a tad nicer helps at all…)
    • How are other people managing this component of their identity? (Your best mate has been in a relationship for four years and publicly builds his partner up…)
    • What material can you read about this component? (You search for some new dating blogs to follow and find a few well-written ones…)

    This absolutely isn’t a rigorous guide to analysis, only a starting point. The idea is simply to identify and select a potential method of rebuilding this component of your life so it can generate confidence for you again. The significance of the change you make should probably match the severity of the damage the identity failure caused, and it’s probably wisest to look for a path of least resistance (e.g. getting a new partner instead of desperately trying to get an old one back), but there are no hard and fast rules.

    EXAMPLE: You come to the conclusion that your previous group of friends were actually oversensitive about your brand of humour, and you weren’t actually far in the wrong. You’ll try to tailor your humour to the audience more in the future, but the best way forward seems to be finding a new group of friends that takes themselves a little less seriously! Accordingly, you start caring about your social life again and focus on rebuilding it:

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    Rebuilding

    There’s pretty much nothing to say in this section that I haven’t said elsewhere on the site, so I won’t waste your time repeating it. You now have a plan… so work the plan. Improve yourself just like you would in any regular pursuit.

    One additional (but optional) piece of advice is to strive to turn any former weakness into an active strength. If you had a circle of ten friends and lost a few, why set your sights so low as to “just get back to ten”? When striving to improve your social life, you may as well figure out what people with hundreds of friends are doing to make people like them, and try to emulate it.

    In addition to possibly increased efficiency of growth, the main virtue of this approach is that it just feels fantastic to see that much progress on a certain component of your identity. All my favourite hobbies nowadays (oratory, strength sports, my social life) started as massive weaknesses that I set out to resolve. It makes life a lot richer, lets you help more people, and gives you a reasonably multifaceted personality.

    EXAMPLE: Having determined to make new friends, you accept a house party invitation from someone in the “popular clique”, which you ordinarily would have declined. It turns out they’re a lot more fun and less snobbish than you anticipated, and the great time you have hanging out with them in future makes it even clearer just how humourless your old group of friends used to be. Your social life is now a massive strength of yours:

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    Most of this article is just common sense: When you fail, be graceful about it, take some time and space to regain perspective, and then come back and fix it. The ulterior motive was not actually to provide drastically new content, but to remind you that failure is perfectly normal and almost never as big a deal as it seems at the time.

    Expect it, account for it, and don’t let it consume you.

    Try not to vent your negativity on others or become bitter and abrasive about it; it’s unethical and petty revenge will ultimately make you feel more guilty and insecure than satisfied.

    Try not to vent your negativity on yourself, either; the rest of your identity is still perfectly intact and worthwhile, and this isolated identity failure is an opportunity for growth. Be glad you have the self-awareness and passion for life to realise and care that you’ve failed. Not everyone does.

    It’s relatively easy to fail gracefully when you have the confidence and planning to know that most failures won’t kill you; with a solid attitude, they can actually make you stronger. Relax, and try to have some fun with it. :)

    I’ll end with a quote that helped me through some rougher times and stuck with me ever since:

    “You may have problems. You may have issues or setbacks. But that doesn’t make you a loser, it makes you a guy with a problem.
    – Noah Brand


    * I was only linked to this blog, and don’t actually read it on a regular basis, so I can’t speak to its quality or accuracy or reasonableness. (I understand it’s part of the online “rationalist” network, which I disengaged with several years ago because I became disillusioned with what I perceived to be a dominant culture of tribal thinking and egocentrism.) However, this post indicates that I’ve found it at least somewhat thought provoking. I find it helpful to define different expectations for various news or idea sources I encounter; some I will rely on for accurate or thorough analysis (news outlets, professional commentary, etc.), while I use others purely for idea and art generation (blogs, forums, etc.). This source most likely falls into the “idea generation” category, from what I’ve seen.

    ** I should stress that I am not advocating this approach, only recognising that it may be an appropriate or understandable course for some people in some circumstances. The ideal resolution would probably be completely calm.

    The feature image is of Sonny Bill Williams comforting Jesse Kriel after a World Cup semifinal – an image of both graceful failure and success.