Tag Archives: failure

Don’t Try This At Home, Kids

How often must you fail before it stops hurting? That was the question in my mind this morning. It’s not that I am exactly failing. I’m just not succeeding, at all.

I’ve heard a lot of interesting and many helpful bits of advice about becoming conscious, and the flow of this year in particular. What has stayed with me is an idea that seems to describe life, whatever your belief system.

We’ start out in life floating down a river in boats of different shapes and sizes. At some point however we lose the boat, or it breaks apart on rocks, or it gets hijacked or stolen or reappropriated. After this, we make the rest of our way submerged in the river itself, which means everything is harsher, brighter, colder, more immediate, more beautiful, more wild, more painful, more harrowing, more directly interactive. (To be fair, if this were not a metaphor, we’d probably also die from hypothermia at this point, but I digress.)

For all its simplicity, I feel this metaphor is quite apt. For instance, I know many people including myself who are going along in living, and then something happens to terrify us out of our skin and we’re flailing in the water. If you think holding onto the shore gives you safety, think twice. Without a boat, it’s your hands grasping at the rocks along the bank for dear life. Meanwhile the churning water surges past you, dragging you away, leaving your hands wounded and bloody stains on the rock where they were a moment before. Trust me, this only needs to happen once before you realize it’s a terrible strategy.

So we try letting go and floating. And this is by far the more sensible thing to do … until we hear that we’re approaching a waterfall, and begin questioning our sanity. (I’m going to do what?) It’s not as though we aren’t used to white water rapids and waterfalls. It’s just that with them, there are only two outcomes: somewhat miraculous gliding through unscathed, or disaster.

Finishing a dissertation is like hearing that roar of waterfall up ahead. I am questioning my sanity—well to be honest I’ve been questioning that for a while. I have also heard lately the saying that if we just let the water carry us over the edge and not struggle with it, in other words pay attention to the way things in life are going and adjust ourselves accordingly, this will prevent tumbling headlong into raging currents from getting disastrous. I, for one, am not convinced.

I am paying attention to what’s going on with the people in my life who have some control over when I graduate. If I took their actions as a sign and went with the flow, so to speak, I’d slow down. In the past week, three people, an auspicious number, have told me in different ways that my plan for defending this summer is unrealistic. If I believe them, I will give up before even starting. If I don’t believe them, I’ll just be bulldozing ahead in a way that frankly feels a bit obtuse. Sure, I’m good at being recalcitrant, but that hasn’t ever won me a popularity contest in social graces. So I usually refrain.

So this morning I woke up thinking about entrepreneurs who say they are successful because they failed first, more times than they can count. It baffles me. How on earth do they do this without feeling terrible about themselves, being ashamed, giving up and attempting an easier venture instead, shedding tears, grieving, or making fools of themselves? (Actually, crying is probably acceptable. Literally or figuratively falling flat on your face? Probably not.)

I think about social movements, people who lose their lives to take a cause forward and never live to see its conclusion. Have they failed retrospectively if the movement disintegrates? Or the people who have always wanted children and try, but can’t: have they failed? I mean, they did try and did not succeed, and that’s one definition of failure. Does a person fail when their body has genuine physical limits they can’t transcend? Is it just their body that has failed them?

When is failure not personal? When is it both a genuine falling short and yet not a loss? When does it defeat a person? When is it transformative? How many attempts at trying are needed before it’s all right to walk away? How many failures does a person have to endure before it’s okay to stop beating herself up about it? Would failure be impossible in a world where judgment does not exist, and if so, are there good reasons for us in this judgmental world to abandon the concept in favor of another one? Is it ever possible to fail, spectacularly, and still be worth something, and still be whole, and still be enough?

These are my questions, and I struggle with the answers. Right now, I have little wisdom to impart. I am only beginning to experience what will hopefully, if I don’t fail, turn out to be the sequence of things which will give me the answers to those questions. And in doing so, I am reminded of the very sensible saying which I have never heeded, “Don’t try this at home, kids.”

What I do know is that sometimes failure isn’t a result of not working hard at something. There have been times when I’ve worked so hard on my dissertation that I’ve driven myself into incoherence and exhaustion. These efforts however have no impact on how fast or slowly my committee gives me comments, if they give them at all. On top of this, life seems to be getting in the way of progress for everyone involved, so that regardless of how much I personally do, there’s a sense in which progress isn’t really made. I am reminded of Diana Gabaldon’s book title, “Dragonfly in Amber.” If I’m the dragonfly, grad school is the amber. I beat and beat my wings, but hover still. Is that failure? Or has there happened to be an eddy right before the waterfall so that I can look ahead to the treacherous journey but am forever swirled in place? I suppose if life is a river, you’re bound to get caught in its eddies sometime or other. Is that failure, or just terrible timing and bad luck?

For all sorts of good and ridiculous reasons, I am here, working on a PH.D., which maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll finish. There are people who get several PH.D.s. They have got to be masochistic. I’ve already reached the point where I am tired of such a painful experience, but the experience isn’t willing to give me up yet. I wish I had made other life choices. There are no answers, but I keep wondering when I’ll no longer feel like a failure, or like I am trying to climb Mt. Everest in flip-flops and a bathing suit. When does the light break through the clouds? When it does, I will not look back.


In Defense of Imperfection _ Part 2

How many people struggle with doubts, with longing to feel alive, with finding purpose and meaning, with finding what and who they are, and then when they finally get a sense of such things, actually like what they find? (Oh hopefully!) One of our greatest consolations in life should be that we are stumbling around but while we’re doing that, everyone else is too.

Is it as simple as doing the best you can in a world that is capable of embracing you one minute, then swallowing you whole the next? I don’t think so, because defining what is meant by “do your best” is a complicated matter. Doing your best does not mean striving to be perfect. If we were meant to be living exemplars of ideal, we would have been born as something other than human. Surely our standards should exist in proportion to the kind of being we are? We’re fallible, we fall short, we let others down, we are vulnerable, we break easily (I mean this in a literal sense.) Held up to the immaculate, sterile, and pristine light of perfection, we are nothing worth keeping. The short argument against this primacy of perfection is that it cannot be substantiated, and it rests on false premises and assumptions (see the examples.) I also believe that perfectionism partly drives the illusion of separateness, and that if we lived in a way that honored our interdependence on one another, we would be less apt to constantly compare ourselves with each other and we would lead healthier, happier lives for it. But that’s an argument for another time.

Examples of my point follow:

The problem with trying to separate authentic expression from speaking honestly:
Once you say something you cannot take it back. So you should watch what you say. But if you stall out, self-consciously weigh your words each time you want to speak, you will quickly befriend silence. Do you want to be remembered as nothing or as something, consequences included? So while it is important to say what you mean and not be deceptive, dishonest, perfection is not the ideal. Get out there and say what you need to say, and decide later if you could do a better job of it. Too many people, my former self included, shelve their voices believing they are inadequate, not good enough to have something to say. You personally are never inadequate, but the response that does seem to be inadequate is saying nothing at all.

Also, many people believe that an excellent person is always composed. Aristotle’s great souled person comes to mind. Yet although such a person is just and generous, she cannot admit to her own vulnerability and reacts to her own needs with quiet contempt (which obviously she’d never admit to anyone else.) Such conceptions of “right conduct” destroy rather than create honest communication between people. In modern virtue ethics, it is important that a person have both practical rationality and emotional balance. Someone who suppresses her feelings, or who is able to give but incapable of receiving, who believes that to admit to her vulnerability or her anger or her sadness is akin to failure, is someone who has let herself down in the name of some unnatural ideal. Such incidious conceptions of perfection create conditions where a person is incapable of honesty because she cannot even be honest with herself,. If she is ashamed of her own needs, she cannot respect others who have needs of their own. I think it is imperative to be able to express ourselves authentically, realistically, honestly. All three can’t exist without the other. The alternative impoverishes people and renders it impossible to live in the wise and balanced way that is crucial to human flourishing.

The problem with conflating the perfect life with the life well lived:
Aristotle says in relation to living an excellent life, that there are many ways to get it wrong, but only one way to get it right. That leaves a lot of people vulnerable to constant failure or falling short. Should life be measured exclusively by whether you got to the top, “being productive in every waking moment,” (a lovely philosophy professor’s words) and ultimate success? How about the compassion you and others show toward your friends and family?

I would argue it’s the latter. The hand-wavy brief argument goes like this: think of a person who was highly successful but lacked compassion, empathy, patience, balance. Does a tyrant or insufferable CEO come to mind? Or perhaps, instead, have you thought of someone who is generally a good and decent person but is such a perfectionist that she never realizes her dreams, is so obsessive about doing every last thing right that she can’t cook her own meals, get anywhere on time, meet any deadlines, pay her bills, or drive herself home from work? Are you living with a person like this, because if you are your life is probably miserable. Most likely, their life is just as miserable. Any life that makes you miserable is not an ideal one, and just perhaps perfection is the bad ideal in the bunch here.

If there is merit in this, then a good life is one that dissuades the cultivation of only one or two character traits in favor of a balance of dispositions and values that can help shape a well-rounded and integrated, multifaceted person.

Our culture encourages CEOs and other business entrepreneurs, as well as academics and doctors, to choose what people, beliefs, character traits, or values to give up in order to achieve it all, and gain the highest position in our respective fields. We encourage people to learn arrogance, develop splintered highly specialized skills, value work above family and friends, put our own research above our responsibility to teach our students, forfeit our spirits as the process of due course in med school, tear each other down, refuse to cooperate, believe it is normal to never have time to care for our children, and so on.

But, brash and burly people are more often bullies than courageous, a person who gets to the top through ruthless competition and prides herself on cutting down everyone in her way is not strong, but one who has replaced her authentic self with a self image, inert, static, and unable to grow. The med student who has closed herself off to empathy and compassion, even for herself, because it was expected of her lives in a hollow empty shell of the rich and powerful being she once was, the one she was born to be. The person who is so off balance that she allows herself to become single-mindedly obsessed with writing the perfect novel, getting the perfect hair cut, or being the perfect teacher, actor, and so on is not living her life, but chasing after shadows of what her life might have been. These people might be at the top of their field, but why should that matter if, in gaining the world, they’ve lost themselves?

Standards have an important place in living, it’s just that their place is not above human flourishing. Our culture often sells us the myth that we are what we do. Are we who we are, or only who others want us to be?

The problem with equating excellence with achievement, honor with being honored, doing your best with doing it right, and success with status:
Is it always getting it right that makes your life worth living, or is it more getting it wrong honorably? Again, I think the latter is the ideal, not the former, not perfection at the expense of your acting authentically. Because often people get so caught up in being the best, getting it right, that they forget who they are. I think people should stop being afraid of getting it wrong and be really afraid of getting it right, badly.

Not everyone can be, or even wants to be, the best at something either. What happens when you fulfill everyone’s highest expectations of you and die regretting that all along you lived someone else’s life? Who are you? You don’t know, because you never took the time or opportunities to find out. That’s not an ideal, it’s a tragedy.

In part 3 I’ll discuss one person’s partial and incomplete, imperfect solution for breaking out of the cycle of perfectionism and the dual fears of success and failure that accompany it. It is my own point of view, as I can only speak for myself. It’s also subject to a myriad of changes, as most things in life are.

In Defense of Imperfection _ Part 1

Whenever you wake up into your own skin and realize you are no longer less than, small, that you deserve to take up space, it is a very strange feeling.  It’s like realizing that though you once were just a seed, you are now a tree with fruits and flowers, part of the vast network of growing things.  When you were just a seed, you thought growing was impossible. If you were small and unsure like I was, you might stare at a tall oak with it’s rooted, thoughtful self confidence, and respond with: “I’ll be that?  Yeah right!”  But when you fully arrive at being here now, once growing has begun, there is room to meet change with joy along with the ever present fear of uncertainty that winds around the perimeter of the shape of our lives.  And it seems not the case that the fear is of failure to thrive and become and the joy is for succeeding at your dreams, but that both happen in response to the possibility of success.  This is because, I think, success and achievement are often thought to be the same as perfection.  On the contrary, I hope to show that, in important ways, the need to be perfect (whether as a person or at doing something) ultimately leads to failure.


Human growing is probably a lot more involved and painful than plant growing.  I imagine myself with a classroom full of students, my students, and feel like the seed or perhaps like a tiny plant that could be crushed at any moment.  I think, yeah right.  But what else is it to come into our own?  What else is it to be a powerful change in the world? 


I look at the book I’m reading for my dissertation, Alasdir McIntyre’s “Dependent Rational Animals.”  I’m overwhelmed by the amount of information swarming my head.  Questions like: is there a human nature?  Are there virtues that can serve humans in flourishing no matter their culture?  Is it really natural for us to form communities of giving and receiving?  Can we make sense of an Aquinian vision of pity (uggghhh, I prefer sympathy or identification) or compassion, in a new context, one that does not involve God (the Christian God especially) but involves our nature as such? 


Are we essentially good?  Is it possible or even a good idea for us to rid ourselves of our most primitive instincts in order to act with practical rationality and wisdom, or does wisdom need instinct, can it not survive without acknowledged desire, feeling, and well-directed passion?  I for one am not sure it can.  I doubt that practical rationality, even when coupled with emotional balance, if there is no awareness of and way to express basic human instincts, will ever be wise.  Many people think that we have perfected ourselves by not following or even acknowledging our instincts.  Yet if I am right, our imperfect instincts not only make us human but allow us to develop an honest assessment of ourselves which is essential to living virtuously.


What shapes who we are and how much?  I think about cultures, histories, identities, values and their justifications, empirical findings about human psychology, biological truths about the relation between us and other animals, our patterns that throughout time have proved nearly unbreakable.  I stare at the tangled mess of millennia of human action and behavior and it’s theoretical, moral, and then down the road practical impact and doubt I can do much of anything at all.  There are the arguments, and then there are the actual changes to be made. As long as I am confounded by the arguments and feel that whatever actions I might take to make a difference won’t be right, acceptable, the correct solution, I might do nothing at all. It seems that doing nothing is a much greater failure than is trying to make a difference without going about it perfectly.


I know it is one step at a time, but feeling so useless is terrifying.  Or perhaps realizing that I could be dangerously useful is terrifying.  Or perhaps the fact that I have not had the courage to stand alone with my thoughts and start to get involved with the question, with the answer, is terrifying. 


When you begin, you cannot go back.  You can keep a seed out of the ground, but put it in and once it sprouts, barring extenuating circumstances, there is no stopping it from becoming the plant or tree it is.  It stands there, with a lot of other living things in an ecosystem of which it is an integral part, and yet it forever stands alone. 


It is so firmly rooted.  What is more, it is exactly what it is and doesn’t lie.  Coming across an oak tree, you don’t stop and shake your head and wonder if you’re really looking at a redwood that was trying to pass as an oak tree, pretending to be something it wasn’t.  People would probably benefit greatly from taking a course on life from trees: how to stand, how to stay grounded, how to keep what is valuable at the center, how to bend in the wind, how to reach toward the light, how to be fully present, fully themselves, how to be honest, how to contribute what they can to a nest, how to shade others from the glaring sun, how to gain sustenance from light, how to let go of parts of themselves that are no longer useful in the fall, how to blossom. 


But in any case, whoever I am, there is no changing that now.  Not on grand scales anyway.  If I become an ethicist, a professor, a teacher, a creative writer, I’ll have to burst out of this shell and become something.  This means making a mark on the world.  This means of course responsibility.  Should I be held responsible for my good intentions and all their amazing and disastrous outcomes and be left standing, like the tree weathering storms? 


First, I suppose I have to be a little better at shouldering criticism.  Second, I need to be a little bit better at believing in myself.  But the irony of growing is that it doesn’t happen by rationally thinking it over until the right course comes along.  A plant doesn’t contemplate the pros and cons of growing one way rather than another and then act accordingly.  It is a process that it both creates and witnesses.  This is true for humans too, I think. 


We become confident, immune to misplaced criticism, graceful around well-deserved criticism, and able to believe in ourselves by living, by doing.  And so it is in the throwing roots down and growing which ever way we do that we grow into ourselves, that we gain the qualities and values we want.  It is not by contemplating the things we long for until we are perfectly certain that we have a fully fool-proof rational course to embark on, that we can finally walk the road of life. So perhaps if we instead try for a straight and narrow course we will in a sense fail, we will fail to grow at all because we are too afraid of making mistakes or not being good enough.  It is like the saying goes, sitting on the edge of the river afraid to jump in because you might be a terrible swimmer, or forget how to float, or get snagged on a log, or get stuck in an eddy, or never learn to let go. 


More imperfect arguments to come.