Six lessons from failure
My grade six yearbook had a column for each of us pre-teens to name our future dream job. Unlike many classmates, I didn’t aspire to a glamorous career. My dream was to ride a horse across the prairies. If I had a do-over, I’d say my ambition is to be good at a job I love. Achieving my dream is the sum of three parts: 1. having a job, 2. loving it, 3. being good at it. Have you achieved all three – yet?
1. I love my work as a writer and am not good at it – yet
The ‘yet’ is key. It’s demoralizing to not be good at what I love to do. Adding yet retains the possibility I might still meet expectations.
I failed; what did I learn? Fortunately, the kind editor who rejected my story turned her rejection into excellent and useful feedback. Feedback and rejection are like identical twins – same DNA but distinguishable if you know them.
Few experiences are singular: feedback can hurt and feedback stimulates growth and improvement.
2. Feedback should be useful and not shame-inducing
I’ve also had feedback that details my weaknesses without being useful. An example from my college days stands out because it was publicly embarrassing. I gave my opinion during the class discussion of a reading. I can still see the professor’s smirk and all the students looking at me as he said:
“You’re so naïve that if someone told you to look up, you would and he’d throw sand in your eyes. Then, if he told you to look up again, you would look up again and he’d throw sand in your eyes again.”
I stared down at my desktop. He’d rejected my opinion without my understanding what was naïve in what I’d said, what was bad about being naïve or whether my opinion was wrong. I lacked skills to turn his rejection into useful feedback.
My current analysis is that he thought me inexperienced (I was), unsophisticated (still am), blind to my privileges (absolutely) and too trusting (maybe a little). But, I had no idea how to not have or be those qualities. So, I resisted changing anything, which was, possibly, inadequate information masquerading as resistance.
3. Not everyone who disagrees with me is wrong
I now understand that resistance to other perspectives was how younger me survived feedback. My pattern was to:
1. Use feedback to confirm and justify my low self-esteem.
2. Attribute their feedback to their bad intentions and poor ethics.
3. View feedback as an attack rather than information about what I had done/not done/could do better.
4. Reject the person giving feedback with classic ‘you can’t fire me I quit’ responses.
Now, I reframe negative feedback and rejection as helping me improve. As I matured into a nicer, kinder person, I experienced less rejection; amazing how that works.
4. We need the cynics and the naïve
Okay, I was naïve and my old professor was a cynic. Which was the more correct perspective? Since I remember the discussion despite its age, I admit the professor was right; my worldview, opinion and I were naïve. I was seventeen years old, so I forgive myself. Raising me wasn’t his role, so I forgive him too.
Years have passed. I can be cynical or naïve depending on topics and circumstances. Cynics prevent stagnating mediocrity and the naïve preserve hope and institutional memory for the future. Both have a role, and shaming or forcing people to agree doesn’t change minds.
With cynicism we don’t waste efforts and with naïveté we make efforts that may seem wasteful until it unexpectedly works.
5. Not yet transforms not good enough
The polarization in our societies reminds me of the professor ‘s scorn and my shame. He assumed I understood and I assumed he was judgmental. He assessed my character was one thing based on one opinion of one reading and I assumed he was an unfair authority figure. We exchanged words without communicating.
Even with no power in the situation, I could have followed up with questions, like asking him to define naïve. I didn’t have skills – yet – to communicate with someone whose analysis felt like a personal attack.
This week’s rejection of my writing as ‘not good enough’ meant that I heard, at least briefly, that ‘I’m not good enough’. But now I know to request clarification, even from authority figures who don’t have to answer. The generous editor responded and, suddenly, I believe I can be good enough someday.
Communication comes with disagreements and disagreeableness. Frustrating as it is, I study, practice and revise and am still not the writer I need to be – yet. Without the yet I might quit, maybe too soon. I redefine ‘failure’ as ‘not yet achieving my goal.’
How often do we quit instead of asking questions for clarification, or assume instead of checking what someone meant, or judge the whole person on the basis of one opinion? What else do we give up on when we can, perhaps, try to understand? After all, understanding does not mean agreeing.
I have the job, I love it, and that’s two out of three. If I quit, I’ll never know if I can be ‘good enough’.
6. Curiosity, information, understanding, mastery
I wish I could tell my younger self that failure is feedback for you to use if you’re open to learning and growing. I’d remind her to be curious, brave, resilient, less self-conscious and to reframe even negative feedback as information and ideas:
Not Everyone Who Disagrees Is Wrong.
Rejection is feedback.
Even in a polarized world, people change and grow.
How someone interprets or offers an opinion makes better sense with more information.
Cynical and naïve opinions can be well-informed, critical thinking and correct.
Cynicism and naïveté bring balance to otherwise extreme positions.
and, most important
Every experience could eventually be material for, and material to, my writing.
That’s good to remember when faced with the decision to quit or keep trying after failing.
People often talk about writing as something they love having done but don’t love doing. It’s refreshing to hear from someone who has love for the process. May that love – and your commitment – stick with you through this time of “yet.”
Thank you. My love of riding and reading are other hold overs from youth. I wonder about other ways of looking at the notion of doing what we love. Can we change attitudes to love what we do, rather than only do what we love? What about the need for discipline enough to do what we must whether we love or not? How do we balance the privilege of choice of things to do with respect for those who don’t have those privileges and those choices? I guess I’ll blunder on and be mindful that I have found mindfulness in the process.
Well said. Going to read this to my son.
Thank you. I hope it generates an interesting conversation.