Embracing Negative Space

Gapingvoid - negative space

This blog is ostensibly about “failure” but really it is about a much broader and more abstract notion of the “the other side”. The other side to upside, to fortune, to plans, to goals. The ying to the yang. Failure is just one example of the “other side”.

I particularly appreciated Hugh’s post and print on “negative space” (no, not that “space”) which is literally a fine illustration of this concept.

  • In the arts, we call it negative space: the utilization of space between objects, patterns, what have you. It’s what makes the FedEx logo so genius. When you look closely between the E and the X, there’s an arrow. And for FedEx, that arrow is what it’s all about. It’s not just the FedEx logo, it’s language as a whole. Language is a social construct, something we’ve created to suit our needs. And it doesn’t always work. Sometimes, the word we’re looking for doesn’t exist in our language or society. And then the truth of your meaning is in the silence. The silence between words is often where the meaning falls.”

Silence isn’t just golden itself, but it sometimes the ingredient which gilds poetry with pauses, comedy with timing, and drama with intonation.


Embracing Asymmetry

The heir apparent to the title of Celebrity Scientist in Chief is likely to fall to Neil deGrasse Tyson who like Hawking, has tackled universe-size topics, made complex concepts accessible and even heralded the embrace of failure integral to all science. You will find all of these aspects in this superb “Inexplicable Universe” series which is available in its entirety on YouTube. In particular, the “Inexplicable Cosmology” episode (minute 13:00) credits the very existence of the universe itself on nature’s embrace of failure”

  • “Nature disobeyed its own laws. At some point, a high energy beam of light created an anti-matter particle without its anti-matter particle. That’s a breaking of the symmetry. We know how often this must have happened…1 in 100 million. This anti-matter particle will live forever. It’s got nobody to annihilate with. So in fact, the universe that we see, know and love today is the consequence of broken symmetry in the very early universe…Unless nature breaks its own rules, we wouldn’t even be here to contemplate that nature broke its own rules.”

Embracing Losing Bets


This week world lost the individual who taught a wider range of humans – from curious tourists to renowned laureates – more about science than just about anyone. One of his best lessons was the embrace of failure integral to the scientific method and the progress of all science. Adam Minter wrote one of my favourite testimonials to Stephen Hawking – “Stephen Hawking Taught Us It Was Right to Be Wrong” – focusing not just on his insight, but his skin-in-the-game, live-ammunition exercises in risk-taking and many times losing…

  • “Hawking had placed a very public $100 bet that the Higgs boson — a subatomic particle theorized in the 1960s — would never be found…For Stephen Hawking, who died yesterday at 76, it wasn’t personal. It was just science. For years, he’d been making — and losing — public bets on fundamental questions of physics. He felt no shame in these repudiations, but rather reveled in them, knowing that science advances when its participants are wrong as well as right. His willingness to admit that reality at his own self-deprecating expense is an important part of his legacy as a public intellectual — and a lesson for our polarized times.”

Hawking made bets about black holes presence, black holes behavior, Higg Boson particle, etc. His humility despite his exceptionality notoriety was role model in embracing failure.  He even took one for the team in the whimsical game of Quantum Chess versus Paul Rudd (which coincidentally introduces the notion of risk/probability to a very deterministic game) made to publicize and promote interest in science.

  • If Hawking’s life can teach scientists, public intellectuals and social media users anything, it’s that humility and a willingness to change one’s mind isn’t a sign of weakness, but rather of an adventurous and intellectually engaged mind and polity. That’s a legacy as worthy as Hawking’s monumental scientific achievements.”

Embracing Bad Feelings

Mikaela Shiffrin embracing failure

Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility.”

Susan David gives a superb TED talk “The Gift and Power of Emotional Courage” about embracing your emotions no matter how “negative” they seem.

  • “Normal, natural emotions are now seen as good or bad. And being positive has become a new form of moral correctness. People with cancer are automatically told to just stay positive. Women, to stop being so angry. And the list goes on. It’s a tyranny. It’s a tyranny of positivity. And it’s cruel. Unkind. And ineffective. And we do it to ourselves, and we do it to others…Research on emotional suppression shows that when emotions are pushed aside or ignored, they get stronger. Psychologists call this amplification… I started to do away with feelings of what I should be experiencing. And instead started to open my heart to what I did feel. Pain. And grief. And loss. And regret… Research now shows that the radical acceptance of all of our emotions — even the messy, difficult ones — is the cornerstone to resilience, thriving, and true, authentic happiness…When you feel a strong, tough emotion, don’t race for the emotional exits. Learn its contours, show up to the journal of your hearts. What is the emotion telling you?”

One of the tricks I learned when I was quite young was assuaging physical pain with mindfulness. Rather than fighting or reacting to it, I actually focused on the discomfort and found that it dissipated much more quickly with mindfulness. Similar to a mediation technique of not rejecting thoughts and sensations that enter your mind during practice, but observing them and letting them go.

Emotions don’t run much more intense than at the peak of athletic achievement. Often a lifetime of dreams brought to a single moment of truth. This past week has been full of the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” with the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics. But Olympic champion skier Mikaela Shiffrin eloquently conveys how the emotions are a bit more subtly textured than that. She articulates a brilliant display of embracing even the adverse emotions as part of the rich tapestry of feelings:

  • "I’ve gone over it a thousand times in my head, and I don’t think I could have done it differently even if I got a second chance. I keep thinking that maybe if I was able to control my emotions more after the Giant Slalom, I would have had more energy for the Slalom and maybe I could have put more into that race, maybe I would have had better control of my nerves, maybe… But after 5 days of schedule changes and waiting to race, and without the day between those races to reset and recharge, I wasn’t able to manage it. And you know what? I wouldn’t change that for the world. It’s the Olympics, and for me that’s about showing heart and passion as much as it is about medals. So I wouldn’t take back my emotions or excitement after the GS in order to have better shot at a SL medal too. You know, it’s not necessarily the medalists who get the most out of the Olympics. It’s those who are willing to strip down to nothing and bear their soul for their love of the game. That is so much greater than Gold, Silver, or Bronze. We all want a medal, but not everyone will get one. Some are going to leave here feeling like heroes, some will leave heartbroken, and some will have had moments when the felt both- because we care. That is real. That is life. It’s amazing and terrifying and wonderful and brutal and exciting and nerve racking and beautiful. And honestly, I’m just so grateful to be part of that.”


Embracing Part of Life

Nick Foles, you’ve just won the Super Bowl after a long odyssey to get there. What’s your biggest lesson from it all? Embracing failure.

The Super Bowl titans, the New England Patriots, aren’t the only champions fuelled by failure…

  • “I think the big thing is don’t be afraid to fail. In our society today, with Instagram and Twitter, it’s a highlight reel. You know, it’s all the good things. And then, when you look at it, you think, wow. When you have a rough day or your life’s not as good as that, you think you’re failing. You know failure is a part of life. That’s a part of building character and growing. Without failure, who would you be? I wouldn’t be up here if I hadn’t fallen thousands of times, made mistakes.

Up From the Ashes


A piece of music that celebrates embracing failure is Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s “The Roses of Success”…

  • Every bursted bubble has a glory!
    Each abysmal failure makes a point!
    Every glowing path that goes astray,
    Shows you how to find a better way.
    So every time you stumble never grumble.
    Next time you’ll bumble even less!
    For up from the ashes, up from the ashes, grow the roses of success!
    Grow the roses! Grow the roses!
    Grow the roses of success!  Oh yes!
    Grow the roses!  Those rosy roses!
    From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!
    Yes I know but he wants it to float. It will!
    For every big mistake you make be grateful!  Here, here!
    That mistake you’ll never make again!  No sir!
    Every shiny dream that fades and dies,
    Generates the steam for two more tries!
    (Oh) There’s magic in the wake of a fiasco! Correct!
    It gives you that chance to second guess!  Oh yes!
    Disaster didn’t stymie Louis Pasteur!  No sir!
    Edison took years to see the light!  Right!
    Alexander Graham knew failure well; he took a lot of knocks to ring that bell!
    So when it gets distressing it’s a blessing!
    Onward and upward you must press!  Yes, Yes!
    Till up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success.

Embracing Static

Peanuts - statis

Despite having 78 categories (cut back from 109 in 2012), last night’s Grammy’s still doesn’t have a place for some of the more esoteric music genres and artists. Like “Noise” music described in Wikipedia as follows:

  • “Noise music is a category of music that is characterised by the expressive use of noise within a musical context. This type of music tends to challenge the distinction that is made in conventional musical practices between musical and non-musical sound.[1] Noise music includes a wide range of musical styles and sound-based creative practices that feature noise as a primary aspect. Some of the music can feature acoustically or electronically generated noise, and both traditional and unconventional musical instruments. It may incorporate live machine sounds, non-musical vocal techniques, physically manipulated audio media, processed sound recordings, field recording, computer-generated noise, stochastic process, and other randomly produced electronic signals such as distortion, feedback, static, hiss and hum.”

White noise has long been appreciated for its soothing qualities, but sound art and more conceptual music can take the aesthetic qualities even further for noise and static and other sounds often considered acoustic failure (thanks Chase). At least the genre has one celebrity enthusiast (above).