Failure is an option

I saw a talk today in which the speaker’s message to his audience, on summing up, was to embrace not just our successes, but also our failures. His underlying theme was that to be an artist (and he is indeed a wonderfully successful artist), in order to take risks and have the mindset to try new things, you need to be prepared for the times when you fail, and not expect that the outcome of your efforts will be an unbroken string of successes.

I found it to be a good message on a number of levels. First there’s the obvious: It avoids a kind of brittleness in one’s thinking. If you insist on never failing, and you set that up as a goal, then you will find it much more difficult to take significant risks, and you’ll probably end up missing many great opportunities.

But even more than that, I’ve come to realize, as I look back on my many failures – mixed in with the successes like giant bumps on a long road – that I have learned far more from those failures than I could ever have learned from the successes. And not just specific knowledge on the order of “I’ll never do that again,” but also an ability to let go of the past, to not be ruled by it.

Success feels nice – a kind of cosmic pat on the back, confidence lifter, ego boost, and general all around spirit raiser-upper. But success can also be misleading. It can give you the false impression that you are solely responsible for things having gone well.

And of course that’s just hubris. You are always engaged in a dance with fate, as your actions and choices weave in and out of the events and the people around you, like the warp and weft on a loom.

Failure sometimes just happens. A colleague might feel threatened by you, you might catch a head cold the day before an important exam, or miss a crucial flight because of something as prosaic as bad weather. The list of things outside your control is so vast that it’s futile to even attempt an inventory. But those are the easy cases.

Much more difficult are those cases where you and fate conspired together to create a failure, where the lines of responsibility are blurred. You got mad at the wrong person at the wrong time, you picked the wrong deadline to focus on, you made a joke when it really was a serious moment, or you just backed the losing side. These are the dangerous cases, the ones where there is a temptation to hold on to grudges, to replay events back obsessively, in an endless attempt to make the past turn out right.

And here is where that speaker’s advice comes in handy. Once you understand how to gather up your cautionary lessons and walk away, to move on, to leave the dead bodies lying on the road where they fell, then you begin to feel a kind of freedom.

The nature of that freedom is not always easy to see, but it’s there. Once you are willing to accept that some cherished thing you once held in your hand has been well and truly lost, to stop walking around defiantly wearing a severed limb as though it is still an organic part of you, then you are free – free to try new things, to define yourself in new ways, to start from scratch with nothing but your wits and pluck and good humor.

And that is when you learn not to fear a failure. You start to see it as just another tool in your toolbox, a cautionary experience to draw on, a battle scar you’ve paid for fair and square.

Only when you are willing to accept your failures openly and without remorse, then you become free, free to jump back on that road, bumps and all, and go off in search of new adventures.

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