October 10, 2012

Fail the best you can.

Apparently failure is the new success.

I’ve recently experienced something I would dub failure…and yet everywhere I turn, I’m hearing just how great failure is supposed to be. So should I be celebrating?

There seems to be a number of considerations to take. There are, of course, the try-try-again mantras:

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter.  Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
~ Samuel Beckett

Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
~ Winston Churchill

And I get that. I had about a thousand chances to give up on learning to ride a bike. In the end I was bruised and battered, but those two wheels turned and I got to my friends’ houses in under a minute no sweat.

This current failure with which I’m faced was marked by at least a thousand tiny failures. I was most certainly far from graceful about it, and I did my fair share of kicking and screaming, but I got back on that stupid (in this case metaphorical) bike again and again and again.

Son of a gun wouldn’t go.

But these aren’t the ideas I’m on about. It’s not that we must endeavor to overcome—most of us learned that lesson in preschool.

There’s also this Brussels sprouts-make-ice cream-taste-better theory:

Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.
~ Truman Capote

It’s true—the thousands of tiny failures were tempered by a few teensy-weensy successes. It’s only that I never got to that point of soaring, and I honestly look back at the endeavor and think, What the hell for?

Here’s a red flag: If you’re going to work really, really hard for something—and if that thing is going to involve the aforementioned mini-failures dominating the few mini-successes—let it be something you love. Define why you want to do that thing without hesitation. Sum it up articulately in 30 seconds or less, or talk about it for hours, but never hesitate. If you’re not doing it because you love it, or if it won’t directly lead you to the thing you love, failing isn’t worth it.

That is to say, if I had known how to pull a sick ollie—or if that was the dream to begin with—I could have probably put the metaphorical bicycle down and saved my spondoolies for a shiny new metaphorical skateboard.

Of course, the scientifically minded literally view failure as success. Take Thomas Edison, for example:

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.

He’s not kidding! That’s how science works! (Ahem. I’ve been reminded just what a “non-science type” I can be. Words hurt.  But I have changed!)

Negative results are just what I want. They’re just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.
~ Thomas A. Edison

Okay…now I’m getting somewhere. This is a completely different way of looking at failure, but it’s important to realize that not everybody’s got the space to see things this way.

Working with homeless and at-risk young people, a couple of things were blatantly true about the vast majority of them. First, they’d been told some pretty horrible things about themselves by some pretty important people—like their teachers and parents— for a really long time. Those important grown-ups may not have used the word “failure” exactly, but that was the inference. Secondly, every perceived failure brought them further and further down into the rabbit hole of their despair.

Failing over and over again may work just fine if you’re in a laboratory and failing is what you set out to do. It may work out just fine if you’ve got people supporting you. Even if you don’t have people supporting you, it may still work out if you know precisely who you are and why you’re here. But if you’re not in a lab, and the most important people have made you feel worthless, and you’re clueless as to where you fit in this crazy, fucked up world, failing is decidedly unpleasant, and it does not bring one closer to success.

It’s downright debilitating.

I am, however, profoundly blessed. The fact is that if I really did believe in this thing, my friends and family would be there, proverbial pom-poms at the ready, telling me (and also even believing) that I can do whatever I set out to do, and that whatever that thing is, it is amazing, and isn’t it wonderful that I’ve chosen that special thing to do (I do realize how ridiculously lucky that makes me, incidentally).

But, if I can return to Mr. Edison’s insightful remarks—assuming we do indeed have the space with which to look upon life a little bit like a laboratory (because who really knows why we’re here anyway?)—it does free us up a little bit to examine our lives like an experiment in living, rather than just getting through one day and then another.

What if the hypothesis was: “Life can be better than this”—whatever “this” happens to be—and every endeavor was meant to test the theory?

This isn’t to say one shouldn’t be satisfied and grateful for the blessings in one’s life, but don’t we all want something—say, better health, more peace of mind, a more fulfilling job—to make life a bit better? For all my blessings, I’m still working on making me better, on focusing the direction of my life that little bit more.

And this idea of a series of experiments intended to test the theory infers something very important—that failure is rarely absolute:

Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

This speaks to the very definition of failure! What, then, is a final defeat, F. Scott Fitzgerald? How can we ever be certain of being done with it all, so long as we’re still walking among the living?

Fitzgerald’s words spoke to every one of us, past and present, rich and poor, the famous and the nobodies. No matter who we are, we’re going to fail. Just like with success, sometimes we fail on our own, sometimes others help us to fail.

There are a lot of downfalls to having been raised in the 80s (Reagan, shoulder pads, hypercolor t-shirts…I could go on). But one of the worst is the notion of “happily ever after.”  Yes, this idea has been around since time immemorial—I know. It’s the basis of almost every story ever told, right? Wrong! The fairytales didn’t end the way we were taught they did in the 80s! The little mermaid got turned into a wave! Things don’t always work out for the best!


But that is not the point. The point is that just like “happily ever after” never really happens, neither does “screwed for life” (unless of course you get turned into a wave).

Failure is, quite simply, unavoidable, unless you live under a rock.

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.
J.K. Rowling

Here’s what one of my journalistic heroes wrote about it in 2010:

The mindset we need isn’t the positive-thinking mantra that failure is impossible; it’s that failures are inevitable, and for good reason. It’s an unexpectedly hopeful conclusion: we may never really understand how to get what we want, or stave off the very worst—yet we may manage it anyway.
` Oliver Burkeman

The thinkers are onto something. They say failure is good. I say failure is as good or bad as any other of humanity’s big mysteries. I have no evidence for this, but I’m pretty certain that penguins don’t go about kicking themselves for having fished terribly yesterday, that albatrosses don’t spend years agonizing over the one that got away. They get back in the water. They go after another life partner. We’re the ones who let the pain linger!

It isn’t always our fault, but it doesn’t mean the onus is any less personally appropriated.

So the question is not about whether or not we will fail. We all must fail.

It’s neither about whether we’ll get back up. Keeping on living is all about trying-trying again. Every time we decide to wake up in the morning, we try again.

At this juncture, following on from my most recent—and thus far most blatant—failure, I’m beginning to think that the question is actually this:

How will we let failure, for better or worse, inform our lives tomorrow?

We are all failures- at least the best of us are.
~ J.M. Barrie


Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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