Failure Is the Best Option

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“If you look at the past, at the greatest composers of all time, what we know of Beethoven, what we know of Mozart, what we know of those people is an edited version of their catalogs. A lot of really bad music was written by a lot of great people and time has taken care of those things and they become sort of oddities that kind of fall off the general likes. So, what we get when we think of those big names are the things that did work. So, it’s kind of funny that contemporary composers [tend not] to think of failing, to think of creating something that doesn’t quite work, as something positive, because history has transformed the past view of what being a composer is into something that doesn’t exist at all, into these super machines that just create beauty that just works from the get go. And it’s so not true. I allow myself a lot of room for failure. I think that failure is a great thing. Failure sometimes teaches you much, much more than something that just works from the beginning.”

— Marcos Balter, composer, as interviewed by Nadia Sirota in Meet the Composer 10/30/2014 episode, “Failure Is an Option

Many of us spend a lot of time and energy worrying about and trying to prevent failure. Relationships, creative projects, parenting, academics, careers — we tend to believe that failure at something means we have lost something. It’s like when something doesn’t turn out the way we intended or hoped, it means we can’t ever have that thing, that outcome is forever closed to us. Further, we tend to make it mean something bad about who we are as a human being: failure is a dark mark on us that we must avoid at all costs or hide shamefully away.

What if we have this backwards? What if failure is actually our best opportunity to get closer to our goals? You’ve probably heard plenty of self-help gurus say this, or gotten a pep talk that sounds like it, but have you ever seriously considered what it means, specifically for yourself and your life?

We can talk a lot about what failure is, chase down and deconstruct its sources in expectation, identity, and locus of control — and these can be interesting and enlightening discussions — but here I want to cut through all that. The above quote offers a glimpse into a paradigm shift, an entirely different relationship to failure, one that is mutually exclusive to the held understanding of ourselves and the world.

Think of it this way: Imagine you’re in an unfamiliar room. It’s completely dark and you don’t know where the furniture is or where you are in the room. You know there’s a light in here somewhere, but you don’t know where or what it is; it could be a lamp, it would be a wall switch, you don’t know any of that, only that it’s here somewhere. How do you get the lights on?  There is only way to go about it: carefully start to feel about the room testing things. Nope, that’s a chair… that’s a couch… (bump) ouch! okay, that’s a coffee table… that’s a sideboard… oh, wait, here’s a lamp, but there’s no switch… that must mean there’s a wall switch somewhere… etc., etc., until you finally get the light turned on.

Fumbling about might require some patience and might entail a barked shin or two, but you wouldn’t think of the fumbling as a failure, would you? Instead, it’s more like simply what’s necessary to meet the goal (to get the lights on). Yet, technically, each thing you touch is a test to see if it will produce light and, again technically, each test that doesn’t get the lights on is a failure.

But this is different, you might say. “When we start with effectively limitless options and more or less complete ignorance about the situation, obviously, we have no choice but to make arbitrary tests of whatever is at hand; it only stands to reason that most of that won’t work, simply because we don’t know what does work. I’m worried about those times when I should know, but I fail anyway.” Ah, there’s the rub: what you “should” know.

This is the difference with the sense in which Maestro Balter and others like him hold failure: there is no expectation that one “should” be able to predict or produce a given outcome. In Balter’s example, he might guess at it, he might think, “Gee, this seems like this might work,” but he’s not assuming his guess is right — he takes as a starting point that his guesses are unlikely to be right even most of the time, let alone all the time.

So, every time our guesses or attempts don’t go the way we thought or hoped they would, rather than getting in the way of our goal, those experiences help us: at minimum, they eliminate dead-ends; at best they point directly the way, like the discovery that a table lamp has no switch tells you to look for a wall switch. Sometimes through what we think of as failure, we are led to discover something new, an entirely novel path that never occurred to us as a possibility. Far from being the obstacle to our goal, failure is a guide, a bridge, a muse even, that helps us to it.

In my work with patients, I approach experiences that don’t go quite as planned as opportunities for insight; we practice learning to see how all our experiences can get us closer to our goals, not just the ones that turn out the way we imagined.

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