In the midst of a great failure in my life, I have been spending considerable time pondering this topic. Three documents have been most influential in directing my thoughts:
1) This Harvard Commencement address by J.K. Rowling (I recommend you read or listen to it):
2) The December 2009 issue of WIRED Magazine (also highly recommended)
3) This book of scripture (brilliant book)
I have spent the bulk of my life fearing failure. That fear misguided my motivations in school; with regret I admit that too often what kept me up late studying was not a desire to learn but a desire to avoid any wrong answers. I have spent far more effort worrying and conjecturing about others’ perceptions of me than I have spent determining whether I myself was living authentically. This preoccupation with perfection too often kept me silent when I had questions to ask and thoughts to share. My misunderstandings about failure contributed little to self-improvement. I am quite convinced that these fears of failure have done more to thwart my personal progression and growth than any other force outside of me. In her commencement address I cited above, J.K. Rowling stated eloquently, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” In the wake of my most recent heart-wrenching failure, I have learned more about the human heart, more about the sacredness of human relationships, and more about our relation to God than any success of mine has ever taught me. Would I ever want to go through this again? Not a chance. Would I give up what I have learned from it all? No way. I believe I have no choice but to embrace failure.
Outside of my own inner-workings, I am also on a mission to inspire the middle-schoolers of Utah to embrace failure too. In attempting to encourage these budding young people to just play with our interactive science exhibits, I come against so many walls, so much resistance to just explore. My favorite question to ask right now is, “What have you discovered?” How can we have hope for discovering anything new if we are not willing to take risks? I was ironically comforted by studying science because I thought of it as a rock of objective certainty. I say ironic because in the field of science, I am continually learning, the vast majority of time is spent failing. I doubt this is unique to just the field of science. But, anyone interested in a science-inspired-fist-pumping-heart-pushing-mind-expanding read about the value of failure in the scientific realm should check out the December 2009 issue of WIRED magazine. I read the entire thing on my last flight home to Wisconsin. Even though it was a gift for my brother, I couldn’t help highlighting inspiring thoughts and folding over pages I wanted to revisit. The goal is not to avoid failure. The goal is to understand why something failed and to use that new knowledge to our advantage. Many of the worlds greatest inventions and discoveries were born from utter failures.
I was given some wise guidance a number of years back: “Success in life is not measured by an absences of problems, but is measured by your response to those problems.” This same person assured me my life would be full of problems and difficulties. Just what you want to hear, right? I am slowly coming to accept (and trying to embrace) that a life ‘full of problems’ is not really a problem at all. If the focus is to avoid failure, the result will be an avoidance of life. In the parable of the talents one man took the single talent he received from the Lord and buried it in the earth because he was afraid. God called this guy “wicked and slothful.” The sin was doing nothing. He was afraid and didn’t try. I presume it would have been fine with the Lord if this guy had just lost the talent in an honest attempt at growth. Instead he was punished for doing nothing (Matt 25:14-30).
This month I read the book of Job. I thought if I reminded myself that my life is not nearly as bad as his was, maybe I would feel a little bit better. What I learned from the reading is that God’s manner of teaching is unlike any other. ‘God is great, and we know him not.’ Most of the chapters in this book are dedicated to conjectures on why bad things happen to good people. In response to all this hypothesizing on why God does something or allows another thing to happen, God responds with a slew of questions that makes Job ‘lay [his] hand upon [his] mouth’. Here’s the first line of God’s questioning, “Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? declare, if thou hast understanding…” The questioning continues through chapters 38, 39, 40, and 41 . I read them as if this beautiful onslaught of questioning was directed at me. Try it yourself. It’s humbling to say the least. Our human understanding and our vision are limited. Our reasonings very often just fall short. We must trust God. With this trust we can confidently move forward. We will inevitably fail. But who cares? That’s not the point. If we open ourselves to learning, we will inevitably grow. Success demands failure.