Failure is Optional

“I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Thomas Edison certainly knew a thing or two about failure and success.  Amazing to think how different our lives would be if he hadn’t kept going through all the mistakes (and well over a thousand registered patents) before finally bringing electricity to the world.

Fear of failure is common and it is powerful.  It increases vulnerability and self-doubt.  In fact our inner critic would argue that it’s safer to not even try.  This inner voice (usually full of unsubstantiated claims and dramatic conclusions) is simply trying to keep us safe – from disappointment, judgement, loss and all those negative things.  So why try?

We tend to use all sorts of tools such as procrastination, perfectionism, doubt, envy – all to avoid failure.  But what if we saw it as a mere step along the way?  Is it even possible to change our perspective on something that is so personal?

In social psychology there’s a concept known as the ‘fundamental attribution error’.  This is the tendency to over-emphasise personality explanations for behaviour, while under-emphasising environmental effects.  So if I do really well in an exam I will decide it’s because I’m really smart; if I fail, however, I’ll blame the unfair questions.  Failure in this case is not my fault – I can blame someone or something else.

If it’s possible to make a mistake like this in failure attribution, surely it’s also possible to change how we think about it.  A shift in perspective can shine light on the path ahead rather than the trips and falls along the road behind that got us here; ‘eyes on the prize’ I suppose you’d call it.  For artists and creators, in particular, this is simply vital in order to keep going.

“Making art is being willing to fail publicly.” Oliver Jeffers

If we take a leaf out of this book and find persistence to keep going then all sorts of treats lie in store.  We can find the courage to admit defeat on something and call it learning, or we can find the courage to try something new and call it success.  It’s up to us.

Yes, we may fail.  Yes, people may laugh.  But in this case, failure is an option.  Embrace it and don’t take it personally.  It happens to the best of us – just ask Thomas Edison.

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Greener Grasses

Looking over the hedge at our neighbour’s lawn is common practice. Their full-blooming roses, well-painted fences and that greener than green grass. It’s not fair, we fume, looking back at our own drooping blooms, faded fences and patchy grass.

When did we get so good at comparing? And why do we only tend to compare upwards?

Life under capitalism brings inevitable behaviours like this. But I sense that it’s a bit deeper than that, and with a longer history. Humans look around them and then look within, perhaps our species always has. Did our Neanderthal ancestors compare bison kills with the cave next door (the cave that was slightly bigger and always tidier)? Seems likely. 

Many years ago when I stood on the podium (having won a silver medal in the Northern Irish schools’ 100-metres sprint competition) where did I look? You guessed it – up at the girl who stood on the winning level, gold medal around her neck. She was faster, more successful, just better than me. I was furious (competitiveness in athletics is a given but I could’ve been nicer that day). I don’t even remember the girl who stood below me with a bronze medal. Perhaps she looked upwards that day too? Or maybe she was delighted with her achievement and grateful for her medal, no matter the colour.

When we use a scale of measurement like this, be it medals or some other measure of success, we fall into the trap of comparison. And this trap is clenched tightly around our hopes, fears, self-esteem, even our very identity. If I looked like her, we think, or if I had success like him – then I’d be happy. Then I’d know who I was.

But if we move towards outward vision, turn comparison into compassion, the world tilts on its axis. Suddenly we feel content. Suddenly we see that others might need our help. And those seemingly perfect lives, those greener grasses, are not so green after all. And gratitude is the inevitable result. 

Moving from comparison towards gratitude is a journey and often takes many small steps. But it’s a worthy destination and along the way we find compassion and contentment in equal measure.

Look down, look out. You have a part to play in this world. You are enough.