Failure is an outcome that most of us dread but it has actually become a "hot" topic in business recently. While some start-up entrepreneurs are writing about concepts such as "fail fast, fail often" and "fail forward," I find that I still have a fairly negative relationship with failure in my own life and career.
Considering my own recent struggles to create an online career as an author and speaker, I've been wondering what I can learn from my failures and if I can figure out how to "fail better" in the future so that I can experience less disappointment and despair in the aftermath. In the midst of this exploration I awoke in the middle of the night a few weeks ago with this inspiration: study the butterfly.
This guidance resonated with me because the butterfly has one of the most fascinating life cycles of all creatures. When I thought about the distinct stages of butterfly development, I began to recognize how they resembled the stages of my own projects, work life and even my spiritual growth. Let's look more closely at 3 of these stages and see what we can learn when we study the butterfly:
The Caterpillar Stage
In this stage of the butterfly's life (which follows right after hatching from an egg) the main task is consumption. The caterpillar's purpose is simply to eat as much as possible in order to fuel the growth that will take place in the future. During this stage the caterpillar will outgrow and shed its skin as many as four or five times.
This represents the learning stage of growth for me, where I am consuming as much knowledge and training as I can about something new I want to understand and master. As part of this process I usually read, attend workshops, listen to webinars and consult with teachers to take in information so that I will be prepared for what comes next. There is also some "shedding" of ideas during this phase as I sort through what fits or doesn't fit my current life. This is often a stage of great excitement and energy for me as I enjoy the flow of creativity and inspiration it brings.
The Chrysalis Stage
This is the most intriguing stage of butterfly development, which appears catastrophic from the perspective of the caterpillar. When the little crawler is fully grown and can eat no more, it simply dangles from a branch and spins a protective cocoon around itself so it can safely rest and digest all the food that has been consumed in the previous stage. Though the chrysalis appears unchanged from the outside during this stage, there is dramatic transformation taking place inside: the body of the caterpillar is slowly dissolving while the previously dormant precursor cells of the emerging butterfly ("imaginal cells") gradually develop, migrate together and create a brand new being.
In my own process of development, this stage is the one I most often misunderstand. I usually don't recognize the need for rest, retreat and recovery when I am trying to grow or create something new and therefore, I miss out on the emergence of inspiration that comes during these times of relaxation and "cocooning." Instead I take the caterpillar perspective and view this stage as a crisis or downturn, while I frantically try to push my growth forward at all costs.
The Butterfly Stage
At last in this final stage, the fully developed butterfly is ready to emerge from the chrysalis. After breaking free, the butterfly's wings are still folded and wet and more rest time is necessary to allow blood to flow into the wings. Finally when the unfurled wings are fully dry, the butterfly is ready to take flight and share its beauty with the world.
During this stage there is an intentional "breaking free" that has to occur with proper timing before "flight" is undertaken. When I have gone through the other stages and am finally ready to display my new project or growth to the world, I have to leave behind the old way of doing things and move forward with courage and some risk-taking, while recognizing the fragility of my new "wings."
After investigating these stages of butterfly development what can we learn about our own growth processes? Here are some of my take-away lessons from this study:
1. Don't rush through the Caterpillar Stage.
I recognize that most of us would much rather see ourselves as a beautiful butterfly than a creepy caterpillar. We tend to reject this stage of our development because it is hard work and not glamorous, and we try to get through it as quickly as possible. But we know from stage development theory that steps cannot be skipped or hurried. When we rush through the essential learning process of the Caterpillar Stage we fail to strengthen and nourish the infrastructure that will be necessary to sustain us through future growth.
2. Don't try to take flight too soon.
In our hurry to become butterflies we may try to leap forward before we have wings to carry us. These attempts will nearly always result in a fall, which will require us to start all over again. Most of my "failures" have resulted from exactly this problem: I've pushed my project to the launch phase before it's ready and subsequently have fallen many times. We must learn to be patient and go through all the necessary stages before we can take flight with our new ideas.
3. Don't give up during the Chrysalis Stage.
This is one of the most important aspects of the Butterfly Principle: there must be time allowed for rest and retreat during the process of growth. If we don't slow down and take the time needed for recovery we may be forced to retreat by some sort of crisis or difficulty that arises. In the past I have viewed the loss of excitement and the onset of weariness that occurs during the Chrysalis Stage as a sign that I am on the "wrong track" and many times have just given up altogether.
Now I recognize that I should be planning for and even scheduling in time for "cocooning" before I try to launch a new project. This stage is crucial for shaping and "crystallizing" the mission of the project while allowing everything superfluous to dissolve away--and I have interpreted this stage as a crisis because I didn't understand the purpose of taking this time for rest.
4. Let go of expectations.
Whenever I bring a new project to the world I am hoping it will become a beautiful Monarch Butterfly, but many of my endeavors turn out to be tiny moths instead. I recognize that I need to let go of my attachment to creating something world-changing and be content with whatever emerges from the Chrysalis; for Nature has a need for moths, as well as butterflies.
5. Be content with where you are.
Most importantly we need to recognize that it's okay to be a Caterpillar or to be resting in a Chrysalis state. We must stop judging our own progress and valuing only the fully-formed Butterfly. When we embrace and engage completely in our current stage of development, we will grow more efficiently, give up less often and find more satisfaction in the entire process.
With this new Butterfly Principle in mind I plan to slow down the pace of my next project and enjoy each stage of growth and development. I will appreciate being exactly where I am rather than pushing so hard to get ahead. I will be sure to gather all the knowledge I need before I move forward, I will allow time for a bit of rest during the process, and I will stop berating myself when a simple little moth emerges after my months of hard work.
In fact I will change my definition of failure altogether, knowing that any setback might be a Chrysalis Stage of some larger, grander creation that I cannot yet perceive, just as the caterpillar cannot imagine the butterfly that it will one day become. Perhaps our entire planet is in such a Chrysalis Stage right now--dissolving away what is no longer needed, awaiting the growth of the "imaginal cells" that will finally burst forth in beauty some day in the future.
Find out your own current "Butterfly Quotient" by clicking here to take a short quiz.
About the Author:
Dr. Karen Wyatt is a hospice and family physician who writes extensively on spirituality and medicine, especially at the end-of-life. She is the author of the award-winning book "What Really Matters: 7 Lessons for Living from the Stories of the Dying." She hosts the popular online interview series End-of-Life University. Connect with her at karenwyattmd.com.