November 20, 2010

Failure by Nature

A few days ago I received an email from a friend, which was an email he had received from another friend, Erik Heger. It is eloquently written and has had me thinking ever since. I asked my friend if he would ask his friend if I could post the email in its entirety:

 A few years ago I came across a greeting card with one of those inspirational quotes on the front.  They've become quite popular these days.  You know the ones -- they are usually a plain black card with White lettering or the vice versa and they have some famous or not so famous quote on the front that is supposed to inspire the person who receives this card.  Sometimes the quotes are from some famous person and other times they are "Anonymous," which I suspect means that some employee at the greeting card company came up with it.

Anyway, I came across this one card that I quite liked.  And I posted on my fridge on and off for years.  The quote:

"What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?"

Its a wonderful thought.  All the things we do not attempt because we fear failing at them.  Think of it?  All those things we don't even dare attempt because the odds are so stacked against us.  And this quote is a kind of optimistic take on life... what if.... what if you COULD succeed at that thing?  What if failure just wasn't an option?  What if just sitting down to write that screenplay meant -- BANG -- the next Good Will Hunting and suddenly you are the next Jason Bourne!!!!  Its a great thought.

But its also a bit crazy.  Failure IS an option.  And in fact, it happens A LOT.  So while the optimism of the card is admirable, its a bit overkill.  Yes, the quote serves its purpose: it points out that fear is a major force preventing us from achieving things we'd like to achieve.  But its a fantasy to think that failure isn't an option.  Like those coaches who say, "We WILL win.  There is NO chance we will lose.  I GUARANTEE you a win!!!"  And then they find themselves in the press room 4 hours later trying to explain why they lost....  Failure is ALWAYS an option.  Losing is ALWAYS a possibility.  That's life.   Optimism is good.  But blind optimism may not be so good....

Tonight I asked a different question:  "What would you continue to do if you knew EVERYTHING you did would ultimately fail?"  hmmm...

The first question (the quote on the card) points out how fear of failure prevents us from even attempting things.  What does this second question point out?  What would be worthwhile doing even if it didn't have any tangible "success" as an endgame?  It seems to me that so much of our culture has become about the achievement itself -- the trophy, the paycheck, the mountaintop -- and perhaps we ought to ask ourselves from time to time if the act of achieving -- the long hours in the gym, the early mornings in the office, the long grueling trail that somewhere miles away terminates on an unseen peak -- is the process itself enjoyable?  Would we still do it if we never won the trophy?  What if we never got promoted and the money never got any better? (or what if you got fired? )  What if the trail was just a long loop that never ended with a spectacular view, but rather put you right back where you started?  would it still be worth taking the walk?

Perhaps the second question is the pessimistic side of the coin.  I guess so.  Do you see the glass half full ("What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?") or half-empty (What would you do if everything was doomed to failure?)?  

The questions, as well as the general outlooks of optimism and pessimism, are just hypotheticals anyway.   Ways of seeing the world.  Neither are true.  Is the glass half-full or half-empty?  Well, who gives shit really...  Its whats in the glass is what matter!

I like the two questions.  They help me think about my life.  One points out that I have a fear of failure that prevents me from even trying to pursue some of my dreams.  That mountaintop looks amazing and the fear that I won't make it to the top makes me stay at home and dream about it rather than go do it.  The other question reminds me that the act of going about my goals is also important.... perhaps MORE important.  Think about it:  What would you do if you knew everything you attempted would ultimately fail?

I'll bet a lot of people would quit their jobs immediately.  I'm not suggesting that they should do so.  I am merely pointing out that for much of our lives we are sold on the concept of crawling through a lot of shit in order to get to some pot of gold over there.  And much of the time that pot of gold seems to just get further and further away. And you're left very tired, very old, and covered in shit, with nothing to show for it.  And this is a possibility.  And its important to take this possibility into account because it is a very real possibility (think Death of a Salesman).

I think I would stop auditioning for TV and Television.  Perhaps I would stop auditioning at all.  The entire process of auditioning is nerve racking, sometimes humiliating, and it is rarely artistically fulfilling.  It takes a lot of time and there is no guarantee.  If I knew, for sure, that I would never get another job from my auditions, I would stop tomorrow.

Will I stop tomorrow?  Absolutely not.  Its the shit I have to crawl through in order to get that job -- and the jobs are usually really fun.  Or if not fun, and least worthwhile.

So perhaps the question will help us to look around and enjoy the view.  To think of it as a very difficult trail rather than a trail of shit.  And if it IS a trail of shit that has NOTHING redeeming at all about the process -- well, than maybe we ought to consider if the prize is really worth all that shit.... especially if there is no guarantee that we'll even get to it....

What if we asked ourselves these questions -- both of them -- more often.  Maybe we would attempt more things that are part of our dreams and we would quit doing the things that don't match up with our lives.  And in the process, perhaps we would also become more interested in the quality of our lives -- what is IN the glass -- rather than our status as full or empty or successful or failures.  Our lives could be a trail that we experience more fully instead of rushing towards the top.  Or instead of quitting too early because its hard.  Perhaps we would find the mountains that WE want to climb, that are part of our soul's calling.  And we would spend our time on those trails, laboring, loving, looking around, crying, yearning, and sometimes making it to the top.  Other times ending up right back at the bottom with nothing to show for it but bruises, wisdom, and a bit of satisfaction and pleasure.  No trophy....

I'll bet living this way would make the failures not so important.  I'll bet that it would also make the trophies less important.  And I'll bet that it would make our experience less IMPORTANT and more important.  Less about the goals and less about the fears, and more about WHATS IN THE GLASS!

YOU, my friend, are the glass.... so what's in you?  Fuck half-empty or half-full.  What're you drinkin...

image  by fireflythegrea
"What would you continue to do if you knew EVERYTHING you did would ultimately fail?"

I have been thinking a lot about what exactly it is in my life that do for the pure sake of doing it. What are the things that I do intrinsically and not for want of reward? Here is my list in no particular order. (For many of the items on my list, I realize that I would most likely appreciate a reward, or recognition, or an occasional “Atta Boy,” but I know that I would do these things even if I would fail every time, because I have no choice to do them. They are wired into who I am. It is also comforting to know that I do fail at these aspects of my life on a daily basis.)

“What would you continue to do if you knew EVERYTHING you did would ultimately fail?"

I would write. Although I am currently writing a book, and somewhat obsessed about the number of comments I get on this blog and the size of my audience, I would write and continue to write despite never “making it.” Long ago, I gave up the dream of being the next Jack Kerouac or ever being published, but I write nonetheless- more and more these days. I would write and do write even if noone is reading or telling me it is any good. I would write and do write not for a reward, but because it is in me and has nowhere else to go. Because I am certain, I can never clearly articulate exactly what is in my mind merely by using words, I understand that all writing is ultimately a failure by nature. I fail every time I write, but I will never stop.

Everyday, I try to raise my girls to the best of my ability, but I know that no matter what I do they will become who they are meant to be. I will parent knowing I will fail. There is no reward waiting for me, and most likely they will blame me for many of their issues as I blame my parents, as we all blame our parents, but this will not stop me.

I will play my guitar. I have been strumming that thing for nearly twenty years, and I am not much “better” than when I started. Most people would say that I have failed at being a musician. I am not in a band, I cannot play in rhythm, I never sing in key, but I will never stop. I occasionally play in front of a crowd and I will continue to find opportunities to do so. I will find people to with which to play. I will record mediocre covers and spread them across the web. I will never have a record deal. I have already failed several times over, but I will never stop.

Teaching is much like parenting. So I will not say much more on the topic, except to say that like raising my own kids, no matter how hard I try to reach my students I will fail with more of them than with the ones I connect with, but I cannot imagine ever doing anything else. I will be in a classroom or working with kids in some capacity till they drag me away.

As I write these testimonials, I am starting to realize that the question itself may be flawed, because perhaps there is no universal definition of success or failure. The question is forcing me to see success as seen by society as a whole: A writer is only successful if on Oprah, a musician only successful with a hit, but perhaps true success comes from taking risks and looking to fulfill something missing in your soul. Whether you fill that void is irrelevant.

So often we force people, especially young people to set goals and shoot for success, but perhaps we should be asking them to embrace failure, or better yet we should be trying to move away from the dialectic all together and simply act. Simply do. Simply be.

“What would you continue to do if you knew EVERYTHING you did would ultimately fail?"


  1. Anonymous9:59 PM

    nothing, presumably.

    i think aiming for success is a force for good in the world. without success we are nothing. what's wrong, as you note, the definitions of success and failure are the real issue.

    i would hate to be featured on Oprah, because it would mean my writing is way to accessible (but that's just my own highbrow pretension)

    many bands are not famous and have never aimed to be. yet they have solid, tight, enthusiastic fan bases..

    writing in itself - expressing emotions in a way that other people can relate to, even if it is just a shadow of a shadow of the truth - is a success.

    making music, even if it just a lazy beat tapped halfheartedly on a rough wooden tabletop, is a success.

    but dear god, if we taught our young ones to embrace failure, i can't imagine what would happen. dangerous idea. i think being proud of who we are, enjoying what we do, is essential to living a fulfilled life. and how can you possibly do that if you define all your past actions as failures?

    better, maybe, to reforge our understanding of success

  2. Jonbg111:08 PM

    I think we have a great aptitude for fooling ourselves and staying hopeful.
    I know for sure that I will fail in several areas of my life but the reason for doing something is not always for the ultimate success but for the small successes along the way and its those small moments that give me pleasure and hope.
    Those small successes keep me going.

  3. I am not sure I was saying that we should embrace failure, although I love the thought of a dangerous idea, I am simply saying that we shouldn't think about the outcome of our actions, but simply do them for the sake of the need.

  4. I have to continue to make people laugh and feel good. I am an entertainer first and an educator secondly. These things are my mission and can't be stifled. Even on the bad days, I find that in spite of myself, I am "pitching" my wares. It could be considered annoying to some, but for me, it is called life.

  5. Failure is not an inherently negative concept.

    Though there are wholes in this connection, your post reminds me of when Kafka writes, "One must imagine Sisyphus as being happy."

    Or, as my favorite lyricist, Neil Peart of Rush, writes, "the point of the journey, is not to arrive."

    Lastly, what about Wordsworth crossing the Alps - though he was sad he didn't realize he was meeting his goal, he was still joyful...

  6. jabiz

    i think this post AND the comments are among the strongest work ive yet to see on this blog. i am, however, unsure if it is ethical to "quote" the original text without triple-checking with the person wrote it (and who directly expressed the wish to polish and clarify his intentions before sharing with a public audience).
    ...again, i am not saying you violated anything. i am only sharing my uncertainty. over the past week, ive been in contact with "the author,"...and he has assured me that he is redrafting...but also needs to time because he is moving out of his apt in nyc at end of month.
    i know we all believe in sharing, but we also believe in openness and trust. those idea(ls) need not be in conflict nor orthogonal.

  7. Fair enough @billieball. I have removed the extended quote. I would not appreciate being quoted out of context without citation as well.

    But I felt that using the idea he derived from a bumper sticker to be okay. You know the one liner about failure. There maybe some kind of infringement about intellectual copy right there, so let me know if he has trade marked the line:

    “What would you continue to do if you knew EVERYTHING you did would ultimately fail?"

    Interesting ideas to contemplate in the new digital age, who do ideas belong to? It is easy to use Creative Commons licensing for images, video, and music, but what of ideas?

    Has he somehow infringed on the "ownership" of the original idea by reworking it? Yes, I know that e never published the reworked idea, but you get my point.

    Thanks for bringing this to my attention, I now have material for a new post. Tell your friend I don't really need the edited version any more. I got what I needed from his idea, and I hope that is enough, or better yet send him here to add to the conversation.

  8. jabiz...
    i hope i dont come off as some sort of dogmatic gatekeeper, a sort of fussy scold of "web 2.0."
    ...plain and simple: i dont know the answers, nor pretend to. that said (and you knew there would be a "that said"), i do think i have some sort of reply that might be worth considering.

    my buddy, in MY opinion, did not infringe on anyone's copywrited ownership for the following reason: the bumper sticker was displayed for public consumption.
    ...whereas, the email i recieved was meant for private consumption.
    there's a bright line between the two...and if you are really posing questions in good faith (your write: "Interesting ideas to contemplate in the new digital age, who do ideas belong to? It is easy to use Creative Commons licensing for images, video, and music, but what of ideas?")...then i think you should be open to the replies....which i hope to have just cogently furnished. of course the digital age has blurred much of the traditional distinctions between public and private...but still...i think a line exists...and we know it when we see it...rather than through navel-gazing over semantics (as i am prone to do). tone is much more pedantic than i intended it to for that, i am sorry.

    great post, great thread, great gatsby.

  9. Anonymous7:42 AM

    It's strange to think of a work of art as capable of participating in dialogue, but if anything is for this topic, Good Will Hunting is it.