Back in my days as a medicinal chemist, there was a red drum can that sat in the corner of the lab for proper chemical waste disposal. I came to know it as the “Red Can”.

The red can was where failed reactions went. When a chemical reaction failed to yield the product I was hoping for, I would even scribble RED CAN in all caps on my lab notebook page.

To me, the red can stood for failure. Back to the drawing board. Try something new.

As a proud Perfectionist at the time, I struggled when I felt there were a few too many reactions gone wrong.

I found them to be frustrating and defeating. When the molecules didn’t create what I wanted them to, it would translate into something personal: about my aptitude, my intelligence, and whether I was a good enough researcher.

Whether I knew what I was doing.

It’s About Failing Forward

Given the nature of research (and as silly as it sounds) in the back of my mind, I believed that every reaction should go well on the very first try.

I had my eye on the final result the entire time, judging my success by how quickly I could get there.

Our brains love to tell us that things should go right on the very first try. And that our plan should run seamlessly, in the lab or elsewhere.

But this is faulty thinking.

Our sneaky, perfectionist thinking creates unattainable rules for how things should go. And when we inevitably can’t meet our own standards for success, we judge ourselves for it.

We stay stuck in a destructive thought loop where we are too hard on ourselves and feeling miserable for it, thinking that this is the way it has to be.

How Success Really Looks

There is another way to reach our goals, where Red Can moments take on a new meaning.

Because even in the negative data, there is still good stuff. There is value to be learned from our mistakes. All is not lost when things don’t go perfectly.

You are not lost.

Growth and discovery is supposed to be messy.

Your failed attempts inform you on what didn’t work for you. Failed attempts give you something to evaluate. They bridge the gap to success.

The only true fail is never getting started on what matters most to you in the first place.

So just start.

Start small. Hold your goal lightly and gently.

Keep your plan simple, and be open to new solutions.

You don’t need to know everything to get started.

Between doing nothing and hitting the goal, it gets to be messy.

P.S. What goals feel messy for you right now? What simple step could you try right now to make it feel easier? Share your comments below. 

Christine M. Razler is a national board-certified wellness coach, a mom, a Pilates studio owner, and an environmentalist.  Her personal motto is “something is better than nothing—so just do something.”  Her Pilates practice and life coaching help busy women reach their health goals, by releasing stress and overwork, and inviting in more ease, joy, and energy. Christine’s program focuses on the compounding effects of small, simple habits over time.  Download her free guide on the first simple step to better health at



Image courtesy of Gantas Vaičiulėnas.