If I were to make a list of my shortcomings, it wouldn’t (ahem) be very short. I’ve always tended to be too self-critical for my own good. Lately, I’ve been thinking about my fear of failure.
I’ve touched on the topic at least twice before — once, very directly, when singing the praises of a book by a New York friend (“Some Nerve” by Patty Chang Anker) and again, indirectly, in a self-deprecating piece (“A dull boy”) where I admitted I was anything but a thrill-seeker.
Well, the topic has come up again, with examples from Silicon Valley to Happy Valley, and today I feel compelled to share a few observations. Then maybe, just maybe, I’ll realize there are more constructive ways to deal with my good old friend (fear).
“What’s so great about failure?” Esquire asks in the March issue. The magazine presents a half-dozen articles and sidebars, plus a glossary and a humorous quiz (“How big of a failure are you?”) all packaged together to examine the up and down sides of failure,
Naturally, there’s much discussion about the entrepreneurial ethic that defines Silicon Valley, where so many successful startup executives freely admit to failing at least once, twice — heck, multiple times — before finding success. There’s a short interview with the woman who founded FailCon seven years ago — a daylong conference where people talked about failure in a cathartic way, as a means of bringing greater transparency and honesty to the creative process.
There’s a ranking of the different types of failure — from the simple mistake to the breakdown, flop and flameout to the even-worse “f***up and *sh—ing of the bed” (doing something so dramatically terrible that everyone is forever dirtied in the process). And there’s an introduction to “F***Up Nights” — casual gatherings with booze where entrepreneurs are given 7 minutes and 10 slides to share their lowest moments in an act of professional purging.
There’s so much talk of failure it almost seems you’re a failure if you don’t have your own story of screwing up.
Then there’s something closer to home. In one suburban school district near Portland, teachers at an elementary school in Happy Valley are teaching their students that failing is a crucial step in the learning process — something to be embraced rather than seen as negative.
Laura Frazier of The Oregonian/OregonLive reports that educators in the North Clackamas School District are teaching students as young as second grade that their academic success depends on their attitude. “By implementing a philosophy called growth mindset, which emphasizes that intelligence is malleable as opposed to a fixed trait, teachers hope to equip students to overcome challenges,” Frazier writes.
How encouraging. How simple.
And just to round things off, Street Roots, the weekly publication addressing homelessness and poverty in Portland, has an interview with Mitchell S. Jackson, author of the critically praised book “The Residue Years.” (I gushed about it myself in a December 2013 blog post.)
Interestingly, the word “failure” doesn’t even appear in the Q&A. Yet the concept is evident throughout, as Jackson recalls the intimidation he felt as a young, inexperienced teacher at NYU; the ambition to become a writer that, even after doing prison time, gave him a sense of purpose; and the encouragement and self-confidence that came from having a piece of his selected to be in an anthology of African American writers.
“That gave me the fuel I needed to pursue it seriously,” he said. “That was the reason I came to New York — because i believed I could do it (become a published author).”
So, with all this direct and indirect talk about failure, how does this fit in with my experience?
I’ll admit that I shy away from activities — like art — that I don’t think I’m very good at. Same goes for certain topics — like science — where basic concepts elude me. I know where these feelings began. Back in grade school, one summer school teacher gave me a C in an arts and crafts class. In high school, I struggled to get a C in biology, chemistry — even general science.
When I found something I enjoyed and apparently had some talent for — journalistic writing — I was delighted. Over the years, I guess my comfort zone in that field has expanded while it has remained static in other areas of my life. It sounds silly, even ridiculous for someone my age to admit this, but if I don’t think I’m going to do something reasonably well, I tend to avoid it. So much for personal growth through trial and error.
Reading all these recent pieces about failure make me realize I’m being foolish, maybe even cowardly. If 7- and 8-year-olds can grasp that failure is part of learning; if all these California entrepreneurs can wear their failures as a badge of honor; if a young Portland author can find success writing about his hometown — well, then, surely I can draw a lesson from all this, can’t I?
It’s about perseverance. Resourcefulness. Huumility. It’s about having an ego healthy enough to accept help and to realize that not everything has to be good or great on the first try. Often, it’s the process, not the product, that matters.
I’ll try to take this to heart. Starting now.
Classroom photograph: Laura Frazier, The Oregonian
Author photograph: John Ricard
What about you, readers? Are you fearless or fearful? Of what?