Sometimes failure when you are young seems more hazardous. You are at a more fragile point in your life, you are less savvy and therefore more prone to mistakes, and you have your whole life ahead of you so early missteps seem like they will haunt you for yours to come. But Catherine Baab-Muguira’s piece “The good news about failing at absolutely everything in your 20s” provides insightful advice to people embracing failure early in their creative careers:
- Your 20s are a good time to “fail early, fail often.” – Take advantage of the relatively low stakes. Chances are that mortgages and kids aren’t a part of your problem set just yet (or if they are, you still have a lot of energy). Failure is a useful data point.
- Sometimes what you’re encountering is not failure but a “gravity problem.” – Once you accept the basic truth of the situation, you’re in better position to adjust to the constraints.
- The straight path is often an optical illusion – Overnight success is largely a myth. It’s worth remembering that you probably don’t know the gory details of the story. Trust me: that Instagrammer with the seemingly perfect life has also spent her fair share of nights crying and staring at the ceiling, worried out of her mind about money and love. It’s just part of the human condition.
- Rationalization can be a beautiful thing – Daniel Gilbert notes that humans aren’t great at predicting what will actually make them happy. At the same time, we are pretty good at rationalizing what does happen. In other words, rationalization is an important, underrated coping skill.
- Some fantastic art has been made about failure, too – Is it any wonder that the best TV made by millennials, including Insecure and Girls, is all about one’s 20s playing out as a confused, chaotic mess? Many artists have made great work out of their misspent youths. Just a few examples include Meghan Daum (see her essay: “My Misspent Youth”) and nearly every poem Philip Larkin ever wrote. Your mistakes can give you something to say to the world. And nothing breaks the ice like admitting your life hasn’t worked out quite according to plan.
World Design Day today. As the featured video above notes, one would think that creative types like designers would appreciate the mantra of embracing failure, but it always bears repeating and Extra Credits underscore it in a colourful way with their video (thanks Chase):
- “The one most basic lesson of design. Fail faster. This is the designer’s credo. It is our mantra. It is our goal of every waking second of every day. Fail Faster. No ideal is ever fully formed…The art of what we do is simply spirally towards the centre course correcting along the way…because without testing and without exposing your thoughts to others and embracing how many horrible mistakes and egregious errors you made in your last pass, you will never create a good game…No idea is good. Choose something, begin to iterate, and fail faster.”
Seth Godin also talks about the design imperative of embracing failure in his post “Graceful Degradation” arguing that it’s not just about failing in the design process, but also designing for inevitable failures once the product is designed:
- “Stuff’s going to break. Then what? Air conditioners, for example, gradually lose their charge. When they do, icing can occur. When that happens, the drain pans overflow and water seeps away. The smart builder, then, anticipates all this and has the pan connected to some sort of drain, as opposed to having it rot the beams or collapse a ceiling. Most failures aren’t shocking surprises. The law of large numbers is too strong for that. Instead, they are predictable events that smart designers plan for, instead of wishing them away as rare unpredictable accidents…The most hackneyed line in design is, ‘first, do no harm.’ A more useful adage is, ‘when weird stuff happens, make sure it doesn’t cause harm you didn’t expect or plan for.’ For work where the outcome matters, consider the immortal words of the Smith System, ‘Always leave yourself an out’."
Infertility Awareness Week this week. One of the most pervasive and heartfelt dreams people can have is bringing new life into the world. Unfortunately, this dream evades many who face fertility problems that not even the latest treatments can overcome. But rather than letting the death of this dream deflate them, Spencer and Whitney Blake from Idaho started a sterling blog called “On An Adventure” where they openly discussed and embraced their problems with conceiving and let to the exciting odyssey of the adoption of their two boys:
- “The couple began blogging about their experience with adoption at the suggestion of their agency, and has continued to post updates to inspire other families. ‘We share our experience with adoption, particularly open adoption, because we want people to know that it’s not something strange, uncommon, or scary,’ the pair wrote. ‘It’s beautiful’.”
Particularly noteworthy are the light-hearted photos they assembled to announced to the world their infertility in an effort to diffuse its stigma and lessen its sadness (see above and below).
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.”