Success Is a Collection of Failures (and I Need to Work on Mine)

I'm going to start collecting failures. But only really good ones.

I have an opportunity at work that's making me nervous because I haven't performed well in similar situations in the past. Unless you count almost hyperventilating during a radio interview as "performing well," which I do not.

While I'm much more confident than I was back then, it's hard not to feel like just remembering those feelings dooms me to repeat them.

There has been another idea kicking around in my head lately, this one for a blog post about the great failures of great people. Not to say "See? They came back from that!" (there are lots of those posts out there); just to celebrate the attempts and ideas behind the failures.

Everyone I respect—anyone I could respect—has quite a list going. And I need to work on mine a little bit.

That's right, friends. It's time to add to my collection of failures. But I only want the best. And to be honest, this work opportunity is small potatoes compared to what I have planned.

One of the great lessons of history is that it's not trying the first time that's important; it's trying the second time. There are so, so many stories of people we revere who started a company or wrote a book or ran for office and wiped out on a grand scale.

Bill Gates started Traf-O-Data. Oprah got fired from being a television reporter for being "unfit for TV." Winston Churchill lost every election until he ran for Prime Minister.

Put yourself in that position emotionally: imagine the grit it takes to say, yeah, I know I bombed, but my ideas are still good and I'm going to trust my gut the next time around too. And fuck you.

It's trying the second time that counts.

If you're doing it right, the stages on which you can fail only keep getting grander. In one interpretation, this means that you're walking an ever-finer tightrope that's higher off the ground with each step. Terrifying, and not exactly constructive or supportive of innovation.

Instead, why not adopt a model that praises and rewards the attempts as well as the outcomes? Not in an "everybody gets a trophy" way; more like "I learned from that and I'm proud of it"

Think about it from a scientific perspective: every material has its point of failure, and exploring those limits is necessary and beneficial.

My first personal experience with this concept was when I was defending my undergrad thesis. The panel was composed of professors I knew well, but sitting down to field questions from them all at once was still intimidating.

As they were questioning me, they didn't let up at all, even after we'd reached the outside bounds of what I'd researched and written about. I remember feeling confused and thinking (the height of immaturity), "Don't they like it? Did I not do a good job?"

As if the reward for good work was not getting challenged or engaged in meaningful dialogue. But I digress.

When I asked about it later, one of them told me, "Emily, we have to push until you can't answer anymore. That's how we find out how much you know." Well, that makes sense.

Testing to the point of failure is the only way to find, and expand, your limits.

There are so, so many quotes on this topic, but my favorite is from someone who was never aware of his success, yet clung to his art for the purest possible reason: love.

In the words of Vincent Van Gogh, who breaks my heart:

"If you hear a voice within you say 'you cannot paint,' then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced."

There's no time limit on that strategy. Van Gogh kept painting even though he only ever sold one piece (to a friend, for next to nothing). If you're still hearing that voice, just keep painting.

But wait, what if you're terrible?

That's really the subtext of this whole discussion, isn't it? Not everybody's work is a revelation that will transform the field.

What if you work and work and don't give up, and people don't respond because what you're doing is shit?

I'm not too worried about that, and I'll tell you why.

The kind of person who can keep getting up off the mat is also the kind of person who is working hard on his or her craft. Even if you do suck when you start out, you'll keep learning with each failure and get pretty decent after a while, even if you are terrible when you start (here's the key: don't quit).

So yeah, I was pretty terrible in that radio interview (or at least it felt that way). I don't know how well I'll do this time around, but it has to be better than that. And next time, I'll be pretty decent.

In other words, I'll be taking Samuel Beckett's advice:

"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail Better."

Yeah, yeah. I know that quote has been immortalized by thousands of entrepreneurship memes and Silicon Valley types, but it's a whopper. In all honesty, Beckett wasn't exactly interested in inspiring his readers, and I'm not sure he would have appreciated the way this quote has been repurposed.

That said, for a guy who loved to portray life as pointless and absurd, he sure did work hard at his craft.