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Make your failures a controlled retreat, not a rout

McKinley Valentine — 3 min read
Make your failures a controlled retreat, not a rout
Photo by Kostiantyn Li / Unsplash

I’m not normally one for military metaphors, but this one has stuck with me, on account of a memorable scene from Lord of the Rings. A controlled retreat is where you’re losing, so you gather your soldiers together in a defensive formation, and slowly, as safely as possible, withdraw from battle.

A rout is when soldiers lose morale, break ranks and run for their lives in a disorganised panic. As described in Lord of the Rings (in an incredibly tense scene, oh my god it’s so tense, what are you DOING Denethor, send out the sortie alread, he’s your son!!):

“The retreat became a rout. Already men were breaking away, flying wild and witless here and there, flinging away their weapons, crying out in  fear, falling to the ground.”

Routs have much, much higher casualty rates than controlled retreats.

So what I mean by this as it applies to daily life is that sometimes you make a plan, like “I’m going to run 5k every day” and it turns out that plan is unsustainable. Instead of just struggling along and eventually losing all morale and giving up on exercise altogether, you should stop, re-assess, and make a new plan.

A lot of people start newsletters or blogs and they start out posting every day and then trail off into nothing. The internet is littered with dead blogs, with the last 3 posts a year apart, each one beginning “Sorry I haven’t written in so long…”

When I started The Whippet, it was a weekly newsletter. That turned out to be more work than I could do alongside my dayjob. I didn’t want to become one of those newsletters that trails into nothing, because I’d made a commitment to myself and to the newsletter and I didn’t want to break that and so lose trust in myself. So I switched to fortnightly, in a planned way, which I announced. I could have made it monthly, and that would have been fine too.

The point is that I didn’t just let my unsustainable system break down; I created a new system that I could sustain. This isn’t because I’m super controlled and together, it’s the opposite - it’s because I’ve let all kinds of writing practices fall by the wayside in the past, and I was determined not to let that happen with The Whippet, no matter what.

If you’re someone who has had a lot of good intentions and a lot of plans fall apart, then you do start to lose faith in yourself, and lose morale. You get an exciting idea, and almost straight away, you start thinking “what’s the point, it’ll just be another thing I don’t follow through on.” This is so bad for you! I mean that it will make you miserable and more miserably and circularly miserable. You stop taking actions that matter to you, because you have no faith that you’ll follow through, and then you like yourself less because you’re not doing things that are important to you, and so you have even less faith in yourself, so you give up sooner when you do try something… etc.

So: keep promises to yourself by re-setting your commitment in a controlled way when you need to. Don’t wait till you’ve fallen apart. This will start to re-build trust in yourself. And that self-trust will make future challenges easier.


Incidentally, I later found out this technique is part of a thing called “self-parenting”. Self-parenting is a psychological self-help technique for people with parent-related trauma. It’s doing for yourself, now, what you needed from a parent, but didn’t get. Self-parenting means giving yourself non-judgemental love and support. But that’s not the only things a parent is supposed to do, right?

Self-parenting also involves: protecting yourself, the way a parent should protect their child. Standing up for yourself, the way someone should have stood up for you then. Taking material, sensible care of yourself. You know, a good parent is kind to you, but they also make you study for exams and brush your teeth and eat your veggies. It means keeping promises to yourself, the way a parent should keep the promises they make to their child. It’s becoming reliable and trustworthy to yourself, to create the solid ground you might not have had growing up. It’s knowing that someone is always looking out for you, and that person is yourself.

But! You can have a great childhood and still lose morale and stop trusting yourself and have habits fall apart, so please think of the self-parenting aspect as an optional aside if it doesn’t speak to you.

This piece was originally published in The Whippet #103 – subscribe to get the next one in your inbox!

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