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Notes from the Labyrinth
Unobtainium and Dragons' Bones
What failure doesn't mean. 
13th-Nov-2008 10:30 pm
mfu: ik-phd
[This is a revised version of a comment I made on a locked post, because I realized I'd said something that I, personally, needed to hear--and probably need to hear on a regular basis.]

The fact of failure isn't what matters. Because that's just going to happen. Unless you choose to stop trying. What matters is that you pick yourself up, literally or metaphorically or both, and go on, and the next time you fail, you try to fail differently.

Now, I am the first person to admit that I am very bad at practicing what I preach, here. I went through my entire education on the understanding that anything less than perfection was failure, and failure was . . . it was the apocalypse. I think, in retrospect, it would have been good for me to get a C or two in college, just to force me to realize that it wasn't the end of my academic career, or of me as a worthwhile person, or whatever the hell I thought it would be. Yes, I finished my doctorate with a perfect 4.0. All that it has gained me is that I have anxiety dreams about fucking up my GPA. Still. Even though I know that GPA means nothing, that no one cares. I don't even care. But I have the anxiety dreams all the same.

But my point is, if you don't fail, or don't allow yourself to fail, you don't become a better person. You become a more rigid person. More brittle. More uptight. And because you don't allow yourself to fail, you have no empathy for other people when they fail. You don't have room for it, because you can't give yourself the leeway to imagine failing.

So failing--or coming short of what you're aiming for--or just making a mistake--totally sucks. But that's not because it means you are a bad person or a stupid person or a useless person. It sucks because it hurts and it's hard and because it leaves you vulnerable. But I still have to believe it's better than the alternative. I used to have a sign taped to my monitor (before I got the sleek new flat panel) that said Perfection is death, and maybe I should find somewhere to post that again.
Comments 
14th-Nov-2008 04:40 am (UTC)
Thank you so much. I really needed to read that tonight in particular--I am making spreadsheets of my reading lists for my qualifying exams, and of course I am beating myself up for how little progress I have made thus far.
15th-Nov-2008 02:18 am (UTC)
That is, of course, what reading lists are for.
14th-Nov-2008 05:00 am (UTC)
Thank you--I'm in the middle of changing my entire life at the moment, because of what feels like failure in my current career. Which it's not, but it's good to have another way to point that out to myself on occasion.
14th-Nov-2008 05:31 am (UTC)
Thank you. I feel like your timing is impeccable-- but probably we all need to hear this all the time. But it's exactly the right day for me to hear it; I very nearly got fired today.
14th-Nov-2008 07:25 pm (UTC)
Ouch! I'm very sorry.

On the other hand, I'm glad I happened to be saying the right thing at the right time.
14th-Nov-2008 05:32 am (UTC)
I really appreciate you posting that... probably for a very different reason than one might assume. Thank you.
14th-Nov-2008 05:38 am (UTC)
Anonymous
Thank you. It's what I needed to hear, too.


--Wednesday
14th-Nov-2008 06:56 am (UTC)
There's a line in a Lois McMaster Bujold book where they're talking about someone's career and the gist of it was that it was incredible and unbelievable, but not perfect. I can't remember it exactly, but it goes something like:

"Not perfect, I've had officers turn in perfect careers before. Perfection takes no risks with itself."

I've always liked that.
14th-Nov-2008 07:45 am (UTC)
It's something I needed to hear right now, too. Thanks for sharing it with us - you're absolutely right. I've seen so many people sacrifice their health and sanity to the futile quest for perfection.
14th-Nov-2008 07:54 am (UTC)
Well, I don't think I'm under any risk of being perfect. But thank you. It may not make everything better, but it does make me feel a tiny bit more...peaceful. ^_^
14th-Nov-2008 11:50 am (UTC) - the risk of being perfect may be larger than it appears
I don't know you at all, so I'm not in any way saying this is you. You just reminded me of a fairly iconic moment in my life, when I was in college.

For a bit of ill-chosen bedtime reading, I was thumbing through a book about People Who... (whatever fills in the ellipses is unimportant to the genre of the book) and it had lists of characteristics of People Who.... I, personally, think it's generally impossible to read things like that and not compare oneself to them, so even though I was carefully not committing myself to the idea that I might be a Person Who..., I still ran through the list.

One of the items on the list was "perfectionism." I chuckled to myself, and turned the page, thinking with amusement, "It's a good thing I'm not a perfectionist - I never do anything right!"

There was about a 5-second pause and then the book slid out of my hands as I realized what I'd thought and laughed and laughed and laughed.
14th-Nov-2008 05:27 pm (UTC) - Re: the risk of being perfect may be larger than it appears
Hahahaha, well of course *I* wouldn't say it describes me.

...I get the sinking feeling everyone around me would say it does, though. ^_^
14th-Nov-2008 11:43 am (UTC) - what failure doesn't mean
Thank you. I so needed to hear this right now.
14th-Nov-2008 01:19 pm (UTC)
<3
14th-Nov-2008 01:20 pm (UTC)
It can be difficult, though. Yesterday my high school class saw this columnist David Brooks talk; afterward he came over and answered questions. He talked very eloquently about how he thought GPAs were faulty mechanisms for measuring peoples' worth, that people could fail sometimes and it was good, &c, &c. And then he said, "But that doesn't mean I don't pressure my 17-year-old to get good grades." He implied that after one gets accepted to that good college, that good university, one can let things slip. That /at some point/, we should get rid of GPAs.

And you know what? I don't think any of us believed him that after his son went to college, he'd stop bugging the kid about bad grades.

I mean--I definitely agree with you. This example's fresh in my mind, though, of how some people say that failure is fine and good, and then turn around and do the exact opposite.
14th-Nov-2008 01:36 pm (UTC)
It is taking me a great deal of self-control not to make a snarky comment about David Brooks and the dangers of letting things slip.
14th-Nov-2008 05:22 pm (UTC)
Oh puh-leeze. If you can't walk the walk, man, don't talk the talk.
14th-Nov-2008 02:11 pm (UTC)
Thank you. I have printed this so I can take it out and look at it again (and again, and again...) I've struggled with perfectionism my entire life - with that feeling that anything less would make me somehow less worthy. And that fear of failure has nearly paralyzed me at times. This post is *just* what I needed to read. Thank you so very much.
14th-Nov-2008 04:09 pm (UTC)
Sylvia Plath was a perfectionist. She committed suicide at 30 or so years of age, convinced she was a failure. You are so totally right. If you don't allow yourself the possibility of failing, you'll never do anything.
14th-Nov-2008 07:28 pm (UTC)
To be fair, Plath had a great many other problems. But, yes, if you want an example of perfectionism leaving you cold and bitter and, well, dead, she's a good one.

Sylvia Plath, patron saint of perfectionists. Eek.
14th-Nov-2008 04:45 pm (UTC)
Anonymous
Thank you. I am really struggling at work right now (perfectionism + full time expectations of a part time employee = extremely twitched out employee), and will tape some of this to the inside of my planner to remind me of a better perspective.
14th-Nov-2008 04:47 pm (UTC)
Sorry, I forgot I logged out! The above anonymous is from me.
14th-Nov-2008 05:01 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this, for ten years worth of reasons. Even with that many harsh lessons I still have a hard time accepting that I've got to be willing to fail, or I'll be paralyzed and going nowhere at all.
14th-Nov-2008 05:30 pm (UTC)
Amen. Yes. Thank you for saying this. I'm in a place right now where I'm on the brink of abandoning a life goal that I've held for a long time, and the sane part of me feels relieved, but my pride is kicking me pretty hard about it.
14th-Nov-2008 05:38 pm (UTC)
There's a nice poster image here featuring Samuel Beckett's line "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Links to the larger versions are over on the left.

Edited at 2008-11-14 05:38 pm (UTC)
14th-Nov-2008 07:29 pm (UTC)
Those are lovely. Thank you.
14th-Nov-2008 06:30 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much for posting that- I also needed to hear that today. Feels like I'm failing in a lot of things lately and this is a good thing to know and remember often.
14th-Nov-2008 07:25 pm (UTC)
Failure is a gift: an open door, a chance to change the parameters.

It surely hurts like a goddamn son of a bitch, though.
14th-Nov-2008 07:30 pm (UTC)
I don't think, no matter how wise and mature I become, that I will ever be able to see failure as a gift.

This does not, however, mean that you are wrong. It just means that there are limits to the wisdom I'm going to achieve in this life.
14th-Nov-2008 07:50 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this.

You know, I did get a couple Cs in college, and they were good for me--forced me, after my initial stress-and-depression reaction, to realize that my grades weren't me.

And then, when I had a dry spell when my writing wasn't selling--failure forced me to realize that my writing wasn't me either, no matter how much I valued it. My worth as a human being a thing outside of anything I achieved.

And yet, somehow, I keep forgetting anyway, over and over. Even though I've failed--and lived in that middle day to day ground of simple being imperfect, too--and been none the worse and maybe a little bit better for it.
14th-Nov-2008 10:28 pm (UTC)
Anonymous
I'm making a copy of that "Perfection is Death" sign right now and sticking it to the cover of my notebook. Thank you.

~Meg
14th-Nov-2008 10:38 pm (UTC)
Isn't it odd how many of us needed to hear this today? Or is it that every day is a good day to hear this, for a self-selecting audience?

At any rate, thank you. What a perfect day for this, for me.
(Deleted comment)
15th-Nov-2008 02:13 am (UTC)
Adding to memories. Thank you for saying this.
16th-Nov-2008 04:47 pm (UTC)
This reminds me of my AP Economics teacher in high school. I don't think I learned any actual economics from him (mostly my fault- my brain doesn't seem to work the right way) but he used to get so upset when all any of us did was ask about how to get an A. He kept telling us- that is not important. It is not the be all and end all of school. You are here to get an education, and your grades do not matter in and of themselves. I think he hoped we'd relax a little and actually learn better without the pressure.

I doubt any of us listened- we were all overachieving nerds- but it stuck with me. And it was a great help when I did get Cs in college, because I could remind myself of what I had learned, even if it wasn't what I was being taught.
16th-Nov-2008 10:42 pm (UTC)
I'm glad you posted this

When I'm writing my book, sometimes I go back and edit grammar or sentence sequences...yeahhh did it in front of a visiting friend once and she told me after she'd never heard anyone call themselves so many different words for idiot. Apparently, I even called myself an idiot in Japanese >.>

So for someone who holds themselves to sometimes ~too~ high a standard, this post is a godsend. Thanks :)
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