Today, this article lit up my little corner of Facebook. A friend posted it; I shared it; soon ripples were spreading out from those twin centers and conversations were starting all over the place. The author of the article puts forth a wondrous theory about the problems women have with success as stemming from a conviction developed during childhood that they simply are or are not good at any given thing, and that failure is an indication of a total lack of ability. Facebook debated the merits of this theory and rightly concluded that to assign it solely to a gender issue is to miss the point, which is this: people who are encouraged to see failure as a signal that they need to dig in and try harder, differently, smarter, etc. are much more likely to eventually succeed.
When I say it like that, it sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But here is the hidden corollary, which consistently trips up adults and children of both genders:
In order to achieve things that are difficult,
we must accept failure as a part of the routine.
I fail all the time. I consistently set goals and don’t manage to meet them. I take on too much, I aim higher than my current abilities or resources can take me, I execute to the limit of my ability but encounter obstacles I had not anticipated. I believe that’s OK.
I believe that if I’m not failing,
I’m not trying hard enough.
I wasn’t always this way. For years I was the prototypical “good girl” described in the article, and I beat myself up for each failure, and concluded that every time I failed it was because of some intrinsic fault in myself. But then I had my First Midlife Crisis, in which I decided that the adult world was bullshit, and there was no real point in being a good girl, and so threw myself into pursuing my own passion. Because, really, what was the point of doing otherwise?
My passion, as it happens, was (and is) writing speculative fiction. I wrote a novel and began doing all the things young writers are taught they must in order to get their novels published. The writers among you already know how painfully difficult this particular trek is; failure is the norm. It was my introduction, at long last, to a culture in which multiple failures are expected, and the attitude is not all-or-nothing success/failure but successive attempts.
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
–Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho
The publishing life is not for the faint of heart; but it is a brilliant teacher of resiliency. Accepting that most attempts will end in failure, but if we are willing and able to learn from those failures and improve our craft we may well succeed on the next attempt, is a philosophy that stands in direct opposition to how we are taught to live. It is madness.
It is the key to successful pursuit of one’s dreams.
We must allow ourselves to fail. To try, to not succeed on the first or the fifth attempt, to risk looking foolish in public. More importantly yet, we must allow our children to fail, and teach them to treat those failures as learning experiences. A failure yields data we can use to build a better story, a better souffle, a better company, a better building. To master the math we need to take on the scientific learning we adore. To do a thousand other things that will not come easily, and accomplish something wondrous in the process.
Go out and fail. Do it a hundred times. I guarantee your hundredth failure will be nothing like your first. And somewhere in the midst of all that failing, almost without noticing, you will find yourself amassing success after success.