Tag Archives: failure

Failure, part 3293409

Many of you know that I have spent some time thinking about failure, how failure is defined, what it means, and so on and so forth.

agave

Recently, as in possibly three weeks ago, I was feeling like an UTTER failure. You know, the kind where you think you will NEVER do anything, no one likes you, why are you even BOTHERING? Yeah, that kind. I wondered why my friends liked me, why my employer hadn’t fired me, and if anyone would ever want to buy anything I wrote. I was like: hand to forehead WOE.

I rode it out. I talked to people. I checked reality. An acquaintance reminded me this was chemicals swishing around in my body. Eventually the storm passed, I dragged my weary soul back to dry land and took stock. I was fine. Nothing had changed, really, only my perception.

When I feel like that, in the morass of it all, I still try to keep my agreements with myself. It helps me to not spiral further down. And in the midst of that storm, I applied for a writer’s workshop that is held in the fall. I thought I was unworthy. I wouldn’t get in. But I would bother, and I would let them decide, before I rejected myself.

Last week my friend Nicole recommended the podcast Magic Lessons, which is by Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame). I was a little skeptical, since I wasn’t a fan of the book. But I’ve heard at least one of her TED talks, and I trust Nicole. The first episode was an interview with someone that Gilbert was coaching. It resonated for me. I had downloaded the last one, and none in between. The last was an interview with Brene Brown, who writes amazing stuff around vulnerability. Gilbert talked about people who had leapt and the net didn’t appear. Brown said, “What’s worth doing, even if I fail?”

“What do you love doing so much the word “failure” doesn’t have any meaning?” Gilbert asked. They go on to talk about inspiration and what it owes you, about being present to the process of creation and not focused on the outcomes.

I was starting to despair about moving to the next level with my writing. Saturday I came home from hanging out with some writer heroes of mine. I felt so encouraged just from those conversations. I checked my email and I found an acceptance to a writer’s workshop on the east coast. I was so stunned I made my girlfriend read it out loud. After so many rejections, it just seemed … so easy.

But when I stop and think about it more, I have been steadily working on improving my writing, however slow my pace might be. Most of our effort is like the part of the iceberg that’s under water. We only see the tiny fraction that sticks above it. And the truth is, most successes are built on many, many failures. There has to be effort and feedback and recalibration. There has to be support and encouragement. And in the process of applying for writing workshops, I have continued to make the effort.

So I’m thinking about my relationship to failure, to my ideas around failure, and the position I hold with regard to it. What would it mean if I take the idea of failure off the table? This is going to be a huge challenge for me. As I told my friend Daryl on Saturday, I’m horribly extrinsically driven. I like pleasing other people. And deadlines. Daryl suggested knowing these things could help me hack my brain into producing. So I’m going to consider that. There is no one right way to do anything. It’s the doing.

So I am going to keep plodding. And plotting.

Share

Submit

A couple of years ago I started selecting a word as my theme for the year, rather than doing resolutions (which are fraught for many reasons that most of you know). I like to choose verbs, because they remind me to take action. I like to treat the word like a mantra or meditation focus. It’s something I can return to, again and again, without labeling myself as a failure. Our attention wanders. It’s natural.

century plant with bloom

For 2014 the word was return. For 2015, it was try.

I was thinking last week what I wanted it to be for 2016. I was listening to The Moth podcast, and Dan Kennedy shared some resolutions that listeners felt were particularly potent. One was, “fail more.” Given how much time I’ve spend pondering failure on this blog, I thought I would focus on that.

So for 2016, the word is submit. I particularly like Merriam-Webster’s definition.

: to give (a document, proposal, piece of writing, etc.) to someone so that it can be considered or approved

: to stop trying to fight or resist something : to agree to do or accept something that you have been resisting or opposing

I like that there are multiple meanings. Amongst my writer friends, the first meaning will probably the one that comes to mind. And I like the second meaning: to stop resisting and give in. In this case, even though I know I want to write and be published, I resist it. In addition, I can bring the words from the last two years along. Return. Try. Submit.

2016 is going to be about giving in even further to what I want. What do you want for 2016?

Share

A man, a plan, a canal ..

I’m a person who likes order. I like predictability. I like feeling in control. The first half of my life, I had a plan. Things went according to this plan. I had no reason to question why plans wouldn’t be a good idea. Until the plan stopped working. As soon as I no longer had a plan, I floundered. I believe they call this “your twenties.”

At the end of my twenties, I came up with a new!improved! plan. I went to graduate school. I learned things. I found work that paid better and was more satisfying, until it wasn’t. I left that job, spent a couple years working with a therapist, and felt that my life was getting back on track. I tricked my brain into thinking we had a plan.

Moore theater ceiling

Which leads me to today. From the outside, things are great! Awesome! I have a fantastic partner, a good job, and time to work on my writing. This was my latest plan. Get a job that supports my writing. Except … this plan isn’t working quite the way I thought. I felt I had set my expectations appropriately. It would take time to adjust to full time work and I probably wasn’t going to be writing A LOT. I’ve created a structure to support my writing – I meet up twice a week with friends. I’ve been writing, and mostly just wandering around in the weeds (cf. “floundering” above).

I thought more about my current dissatisfaction. Why was I so unhappy? I mean, my life is good. I realized it was The Plan. Plans come with built-in expectations, like old Craftsman houses with built-in cupboards. Unlike the Craftsman cupboards, though, these built-ins are often promises that don’t work out.

I thought about what Greg (my therapist) would say to me, when I was feeling like utter crap. “You don’t have control, but you have a choice.”

And then he would ask me:

What do you want?

Those four words seem so simple. It turns out I *always* know what I want. Kurt Vonnegut knew that. He said, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.” My desire is clear, and yet complicated by American culture. Many of the things I want are not what I was told were desirable. I have a strong desire to please others, but ultimately, I have to please myself. Not at the cost of others, but not by sacrificing myself either. This is a delicate dance for me. I yearn for a bit more narcissism, so I can stop caring so much about what other people think of me.

The other thing I know about myself is that structure supports me. I feel best and get the most done when I have structure. Structure. Plans. Control. I assume by now you are detecting a theme.

The problem is, these things aren’t working for well for me. I thought I just had to get through winter and I would feel better. (Yes, I’m still judging my feelings. That’s probably a whole other blog post. What if feelings were just feelings, and I didn’t have to categorize them?)

Back to the theme (another structure! The layers of meta run deep.) – what if I could let go of my plan and just focus on what I WANT? When I asked myself that yesterday, the miasma and shame and sadness started to lift (or maybe it was the handstand). I wasn’t a failure, just because The Plan wasn’t working. Some of you know I’ve spent some time considering what failure is and what it means to me.

What if failure is the inability to access and respond to our own desires?

I decided that rather than focus on the future (i.e. The Plan with its attendant expectations/results) I need to return my focus to the moment. What do I want? Like meditation, I expect (ha!) this to be challenging, but instead of pushing satisfaction to the future, I can focus on creating it in any given moment.

My good friend Kristin is a huge inspiration for me. She’s got a laser focus and she just wrote a post about focusing on what you want.

Mary Oliver asks:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

I’m replacing plan with want. What do you want?

Share

Do. Try. Do be do be do.

At the beginning of 2014 my friend Louise Knight encouraged people to pick a word as their theme for the year. I loved doing it so much, I decided to do it again this year. Last year my word was return. That turned out to be a great word. It was the same idea as meditation. In other words, whenever I noticed that my focus had changed and I was distracted by something, I could gently return my attention back to what I wanted to create.

Last year, while working with my therapist on issues around fear, he told me: Curiosity is the antidote to fear. Armed with this knowledge, I began experimenting. I would try something out and see what kind of results of got. Fear leads to paralysis; curiosity can unlock that frozen state.

Failing is something queers do

This brings me to this year’s theme. Yes, I realize it’s the end of February, but I chose it at the beginning of January. I’m just now getting around to writing it up. I first thought it should be curiosity, but that wasn’t a verb. It didn’t impel me to any action. I considered experiment, but that too wasn’t compelling enough for me. And then I landed on the sticky verb try

Those you familiar with Star Wars will remember Yoda’s famous injunction:
“Do. Or do not. There is no try.”

Yoda gives this instruction to the young Skywalker after he watches his ship sink in the bog. For many years I subscribed to this approach. But recently I’ve come to realize that this sets up a false dichotomy: Do, or do not. There is no room for effort, for error, for learning by failing, which is how we all learn.

When I speak of trying, I speak of failing. I mean making the effort and not getting it quite right, but learning something with each round. There is a wonderful children’s book, The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires that describes this process wonderfully. There is a little girl and in her mind, she envisions the most magnificent thing. She sets out to create it, but her first attempt doesn’t hit the mark. Nor does her second or third. But in each attempt, she learns and sees something that she can adjust that will improve her product until she attains her goal.

When I try to do something, with focus and intention, and I see the result isn’t what I intended, I have hopefully learned something that I can apply when I go back to do it again.

I read in the book Art & Fear a story about a ceramics teacher who demonstrated this very concept I’m describing:

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”. Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

By Yoda’s definition, those focused on quality were “trying.” I like to think of those focused on quantity were trying in the way I’m describing. Even young Skywalker kept making the effort. In today’s tech world, people talk about iterating. Would Yoda say, “There is no interate. Only do.”? I don’t know, but I like to think of him exhorting Luke to iterate!

Do, or do not, it’s not a zero-sum. I wrote last year about failure, and it’s the fear of failing of that keeps us all from trying. What if the first effort is a failure? Or the second or third or tenth? At what point do we define our efforts as a failure? For me, I’m going to put that at the end of my life, so I can have as many chances as possible.

We can all make the effort. We can keep aiming our arrows and drawing back the bows. As one of my yoga teachers says, “No effort is wasted.”

Share

The Absurdity of Failure

When all else fails, there's tea

What am I afraid of?
I’m afraid I’ll never work full-time again. Which really means ..
I’m afraid I’ll never have work that pays me a living wage.
I’m afraid I’ll have to go back to working in an office with mean, abusive people.
I’m afraid my work will never be valued.
I’m afraid I won’t be valued.
I’m afraid of going after what I really want and not succeeding.
I’m afraid to talk about my experience at Amazon.
I’m afraid I’ll die alone.
I’m afraid I’ve passed my prime/missed my opportunity.
I’m afraid I’ll write my book and no one will care.
I’m afraid to try new things related to employment.
I’m afraid to speak up for myself.
I’m afraid of failing.
I’m afraid of disappointing the people who love me.

What am I not afraid of?
I’m not afraid to travel to foreign countries where I don’t speak the language.
I’m not afraid to try new types of food.
I’m not afraid that my partner will leave me.
I’m not afraid of using technology.
I’m not afraid to talk to people.
I’m not afraid my family will stop loving me.

I seem to have two kinds of fears: the ones that paralyze me, and the ones that I can manage without feeling overwhelmed. For the ones that overwhelm me, I don’t have any way to break them into smaller components. There’s no incremental path to work through that fear. Those fears feel like a solid, massive wall without any doors or windows, no openings whatsoever.

I’m afraid of failing.

Judith Halberstam wrote a book a couple of years ago called The Queer Art of Failure. From the description about the book:

The Queer Art of Failure is about finding alternatives—to conventional understandings of success in a heteronormative, capitalist society; to academic disciplines that confirm what is already known according to approved methods of knowing; and to cultural criticism that claims to break new ground but cleaves to conventional archives. Judith Halberstam proposes “low theory” as a mode of thinking and writing that operates at many different levels at once. Low theory is derived from eccentric archives. It runs the risk of not being taken seriously. It entails a willingness to fail and to lose one’s way, to pursue difficult questions about complicity, and to find counterintuitive forms of resistance. Tacking back and forth between high theory and low theory, high culture and low culture, Halberstam looks for the unexpected and subversive in popular culture, avant-garde performance, and queer art. She pays particular attention to animated children’s films, revealing narratives filled with unexpected encounters between the childish, the transformative, and the queer. Failure sometimes offers more creative, cooperative, and surprising ways of being in the world, even as it forces us to face the dark side of life, love, and libido.

I wrote about failing a couple of months ago. Re-reading that post, I realize I have more to say. Because there’s a piece about mistakes that I haven’t addressed. In American culture, my perception is that mistakes are not tolerated. Hello, “three strikes you’re out” and all that. In my experience, mistakes weren’t tolerated in the business/work setting.

Last week I was asked where I feel free to make mistakes. “Yoga,” was the first word out of my mouth. Because the flip side of all this talk about failure is success. This is what Halberstam is getting at, too.

How have I defined success? By results. And when I look at the “results” of the fruits of my labor, I feel I have nothing to show. I recognize this is fear talking. And that’s why the yoga practice is so different. Because what are the markers of success in yoga? It’s not the physical, outer form, but inner things that are felt. Maybe they are quantifiable? But for me, the biggest markers of success in yoga are qualitative, not quantitative. I think this is the success that Halberstam may be talking about. In my failure to “make it” in the corporate, high-tech world, I’ve freed myself from even having to make the attempt. I have to keep reminding myself that there are many other arenas, many other venues, and many other ways of being in the world that are just as valid.

As I’ve said in my (hu)manifesto, failure is when you stop trying, stop making the effort. I want to create an environment for myself that not only tolerates mistakes, but encourages them. I learn from my mistakes. I don’t want to be punished by them.

Share

On Failure

fail harder

My friend Claudette posted this piece today: Since when did the word ______ become dirty in yoga?. I wondered what the word was that filled in the blank, so I meandered over to see. Perfection. Oh. That word.

I read with curiosity, interested to see how he was going to unpack what perfection meant in the context of yoga. He does define it, but that wasn’t what struck me so much as this:

I need to deny this small, measly self within me that can’t tolerate perfection, I refuse to be too fragile to admit that I am not strong enough or devoted enough to reach for such an unattainable place. Instead I humbly get on my knees and cry out for the strength to fail, and to fail, and to fail, and to fail, as happily and as endlessly as is necessary to take one step towards the lofty mastery of perfection. Let me champion perfection, protect it, covet it, yearn for it, breathe it, know it, risk for it, love it, respect it, fear it, cherish it, tolerate my need for it, lay it all on the line for it.

And I realized something. I have defined my own failure as my inability to achieve. BUT. This idea of failing and failing and failing again and again and again in pursuit of a higher purpose – that is not failure. That is the story of Sisysphus as told by Camus, the man who found his meaning in repeatedly rolling the rock up the hill, not in attaining the summit. I doubt David Garrigues is an Existentialist, but it’s where I went.

I’ve judged myself by my inability to achieve, when I should have realized that what I lacked wasn’t results, but focus. I had no defining principle, no purpose that pulled me forward. I was merely bobbing along, adrift and responding to whatever I bumped into.

I’ve decided this year to let my writing be the defining center. And because I did that, I leapt at the opportunity to go on a writing retreat for 5 days when it appeared. In the past, I would have let it go, because I hadn’t had enough time to prepare myself. But what needed preparing? Only my mind, which was already ready.

Tell me about your failures. Fail harder. Fail softer. Fail funnier. Just keep failing.

Share