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seeking ways to fail more

April 29, 2011

Wednesday night I began a six-week workshop at The Writer’s Center on science writing. There are twice as many students as I expected (n=14), and most seem to be in the hard sciences, although there’s also an attorney, a medical student, a civil engineer, an artist, and me. I foresee lots of practice getting outside my comfort zone, in a good way.

My teacher’s personal website led me to LibraryThing, which I immediately joined, and have spent two solid days entering both my personal library and books I’ve read from my local library into my profile. If I’d known how much fun cataloging my own book collection could be, I’d have started doing it years ago.

I started thinking about tagging because my friend K. and I have been talking this week about labels as applied to people. She pointed out that my love of labels may stem from a background in linguistics and taxonomy. When I later read Clay Shirky’s article on ontology, my mind veered in a new direction: I actually prefer clouds of tags for getting a holistic sense of an entity, rather than discrete labels, which are reductionist. As I began tagging photographs in Flickr, I began to realize how powerful the tool of tagging really is. I’ve created tags that crystallize complex concepts of my personal aesthetic, my philosophies, and, in a meta sense, my life’s work. Pretty impressive for a photograph! Tagging gave me access to those concepts, which I exported to other media, like my blog, various works of art, my self talk, and conversations with others.

My sense of who I am is changing as I realize some of my strengths have been hidden behind labels I outgrew or have utterly transformed some time ago.

I have often mused on a bold assertion read in a long-forgotten book: “our language does not have a word for failure.” Does it mean:

  • We don’t allow people to fail, therefore we don’t need a word for failure? (People who do fail are killed or exiled or shunned, and their transgressions are ignored)
  • Every failure is an opportunity, so we use the word opportunity in lieu of failure?
  • Some other interpretation?

I’ve also read a quote from someone who said something like: “If I had my life to live over, I’d fail more, and start sooner.” I sort of liked the idea, but I couldn’t quite figure out what it meant.

It’s a widely-accepted idea amongst creative people that to succeed long-term, you have to persist no matter how many times you fail. So I’ve often wondered if “failure” really should be seen as an opportunity, and not feared at all. It was just today that I figured out a twist on that concept that illuminates everything.

People do things in customary ways — they have patterns, habits of thought and action. When you fail, your patterns are disrupted, and Change is introduced into the equation ==> serendipitous events, growth, and unpredictable outcomes.

When you set goals, you have ideas about HOW you plan to meet them, which are limited by your patterns of thought and action. You and your goals exist inside a bubble. Failure pops the bubble, but also exposes you to the whole world, where options you had not previously considered may suddenly seem within your reach.

The more (emotional) energy you devote to your endeavors, the more energy you will (re)invest in accomplishing those endeavors in spite of setbacks, obstacles, or outright disasters. You will be resilient and adaptable because you care so much. You will find a way to make it happen.

If, instead, you minimize your (emotional) energy investment in your endeavors, when problems crop up — and they will! — you are much less likely to fight through them. You will probably give up, assuming you were doomed from the start. But a little more effort, a little passion, might well turn everything around.

I realized today that I have years and years of experience with failing, and yet persisting. It  wasn’t until I lived in Indiana, however, that I learned how to fail effectively. Failing effectively sparks your local environment  — your social network broadens, you encounter new ideas and you figure out how to make them work. I’ve been in Maryland for less than ¼ of the time I lived in Indiana, but I’ve failed here a lot more. But that means I’m on the right track. The more I fail (effectively), the more stagnation is interrupted, silt churns up, and I’m creating a mixing zone where anything is possible. Including success.

I finally think I know what I’m doing.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 29, 2011 18:05

    Interesting that you talked about a “mixing zone” and creating possibility; I was thinking and writing about that today too. If there’s anything I can do to help you “fail upwards,” let me know. Sounds like the class is already having benefits…

    • April 29, 2011 19:28

      Thanks for the offer — I will take you up on it when I think of something!

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