Can you imagine things going right on the first try?
It would be fantastically … boring!
Just picture sitting down to center clay on the pottery wheel. Your hands wrap around the mud. Your foot hits the pedal. And within seconds, the job is done. Instead of clay flying out to splatter your neighbor’s face with a roar of laughter, it stays put. Instead of trying and trying and finally learning something new, you simply know how to craft a pot from the start. The sense of accomplishment would be lost. The beauty of brilliant artwork would be commonplace.
Or picture instead, the art of romance. In a world free of error, you’d find your soulmate on the first date. So many life experiences would vanish.
Yet, this error-free life is often our focus. In a society graded on scales of 1 to 5 stars and A’s down to Fs’, we find ourselves afraid to experience failure. We avoid it at all cost. In our heads, from a young age, we associate failure with lack of competency. We connect failure with shame. We tie failure into our self-image. If we fail at a task, we wonder, have we failed as a person? What did we do wrong?
Certainly, many of us learn in childhood to wipe off our pant legs and grow from a misstep. If the first try didn’t work, perhaps a second try and a small change will do the trick. On occasion, a full redirection is in order, whether that be a change in career or a move across state lines. Still, our objective with each new choice is the same: to finally succeed — as though success were a single, achievable objective.
Businesspeople want to succeed financially. Innovators want to succeed creatively. Wanderers want to succeed in their search for happiness and fulfillment.
As a writer, I often think of the beauty of succeeding with my first draft. “If only I didn’t have to edit,” I mutter, scrolling back from the bottom of the text to page one. There would be so much time open for new writing! The reality is, though, I do have to edit, as do most authors. And in editing, I discover new gems buried within my words. Each time I flip through a draft, I have a greater depth of knowledge on my story — for one, I know how it will end. And each time I pick up a pen, I have hours more experience of writing, reading, editing, and living to contribute to my work.
I never consider the first draft a failure, if only for semantics. Inherent in the word ‘draft’ is revision. Inherent in a need for revision is the presence of imperfection.
The rest of our lives are no different than a novel. Each action we take, each decision we make throughout a day is a draft of our future. It gives us a window into what is to come next, but it is far from permanent. And it has so little to do with our value as a person.
I know a woman who chose to work for a nonprofit. She loved the concept of the job and was ready for action. The mission statement of her business lifted her spirits and reflected in her laugh. Then she actually started the job, and it was nothing she’d imagined. There was no creativity and so many unmet needs despite the efforts of the nonprofit. She felt any task she attempted was incomplete if only because of the number of hungry community members still lining the streets. Each day her company went without receiving new grants felt like a failure. The office itself became a setting she dreaded. The walls of her cubicle were closing in.
But quitting, too, felt like a failure. She had taken on a responsibility and felt obliged to see it through. The young woman felt stuck.
When I finally sat with my friend over improv comedy, I understood how she felt. I had felt the same at different points in my life. And I wouldn’t accept it. Not for myself; not for my friend.
The stuck feeling in the present was insight into how she would feel for years to come in this job. The choice to take on this responsibility was a draft of a future she could still revise. The only failure possible was acceptance of discontent.
It’s natural to want life to be easy. It’s human instinct to want our first choice and our present states to be right for us. When we’re tired, overwhelmed, perhaps down on ourselves, the simplest solution is that euphoria of success.
Yet, we can feel that same energy of success in our so-called failures. The next time you fail, tell yourself, “Wow! I had an opportunity to learn something new.” The next time you change direction, remind yourself that this time, you have more knowledge and wisdom than ever before.
Just for a moment, imagine how many experiences you would have missed had every part of your life simply been perfect. For the record, I’ve lost count!
But, oh my, what a beautiful life it is to experience those days filled with failure.