This is What Failure Looks Like
Every Tuesday I write a resource article like this one.
For over a year I’ve written an essay on creativity like this one.
I’ve published and shared over 50 essays like this one.
Well… like this one is supposed to be.
Today, this essay is just not coming together. I’ve started and restarted, typed and deleted, tried and tried again. Each time, it ended in an essay that was incoherent and bland. An essay I wasn’t proud of and didn’t want to share.
Eventually we got to where I am right now—swimming in a pile of mediocre essays and feeling like a big ol’ pile of failure.
I try to always email these essays to my subscribers at the same time, around 10–11am EST. It’s now past 1pm, and here I am still writing, still not knowing where I’m going with this essay at all.
I thought about quitting and just sending a nice note, with no essay this week. “I deserve a break, right?”
I thought about giving up and not emailing you guys at all this week. “Would they even notice?”
I thought about how many more essays I would have to write until I found something good. “Will I ever write something good again?”
“The truth is, when failure’s not an option, we have a bunch of scared people hanging around, loitering on the outside of the arena. You know, the bottom line is if you’re going to go into the arena, you’re going to get your butt kicked.”
–Brene Brown, researcher + writer
And then it dawned on me. This is it. What I’m doing at this exact moment. This is my essay: Failure. I’m trying to make something, and I’m failing. I’m trying to write about bravery and courage, creativity and dedication, but I’m over here just flat out failing. That’s what I should write. That’s what I should share.
Hello, this is your good pal Christine, and I am currently failing. Welcome to my failure-of-an-essay.
Hm. You know what? After I just did that — after I realized I was failing, after I acknowledged I was struggling, after I decided to accept my failure as an option instead of squashing it down — I feel a lot better now.
Hello! This is Christine, and I am currently failing!
Isn’t it wonderful? I’m here and I’m writing and…wait a minute. If I’ve accepted my failure and have begun to embrace my failure… is it really failure anymore?
If I’m here in the arena, doing the work, accepting the failure, pushing through, and putting it out there anyway… am I still failing?
“If we’re going to find our way back to each other, vulnerability is going to be that path. And I know it’s seductive to stand outside the arena ’cause I think I did it my whole life and think to myself, I’m going to go in there and kick some ass when I’m bulletproof and when I’m perfect. And that is seductive. But the truth is, that never happens. And even if you got as perfect as you could and as bulletproof as you could possibly muster, when you got in there that’s not what we want to see. We want you to go in. We want to be with you and across from you.”
–Brene Brown, researcher + writer
Well guys, here I am in all my glorious failure. I can’t wait until I’m bulletproof. Today, this essay just ain’t gonna be perfect. But I’m barging into the arena anyway, and sharing it with you.
I get a lot of emails and messages from you guys thanking me for helping you get over your fears, find new confidence, and make more art. But I want to take a minute to thank you guys. Because having you here in the arena with me, reading these essays, and listening to me blabber on about creativity and art making — you guys have made me be a more vulnerable and open person and for that I am truly grateful.
I have all the same issues you do. I fail. I make mistakes. I close myself off. I have guilt. I have shame. I get overwhelmed and exhausted all the time.I fail a lot. I’m quite bad at most things I do — I’ve been snowboarding for 5+ years and I still can’t turn left! I am far from perfect.
But I go in.
I keep coming back and trying again and again.
And I try to learn from it when I fail. Sometimes I learn an important lesson, and sometimes I learn I just need to take a break.
Today I learned that it’s important to be vulnerable and let failure be an option sometimes. So I wanted to share this failure with you, instead of glossing over it or pretending like I had another plan all along and acting like I have everything together. Because I don’t. I’ve been on a pretty good streak lately. But today, I failed.
And that’s ok. Because it means I was here. It means I tried.
This time I got a little more beat up in the arena than usual, but I’m still here, I learned a lesson, and I’m ready to try again.
So next time you feel like a failure, just remember: you’re not the only one. I’m over here failing with you, and we’re in this together.
Thanks for being here in the arena with me.
Jon Carroll started at the San Francisco Chronicle editing the crossword puzzle and writing TV listings. He has been a columnist for the paper since 1982. Carroll has also held editorial positions at Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and other magazines. Terry Lorant hide caption
From the 'All Things Considered' archives, Nov. 25, 1991.
Jon Carroll: Watching a Daughter Fly By
Last week, my granddaughter started kindergarten, and, as is conventional, I wished her success. I was lying. What I actually wish for her is failure. I believe in the power of failure.
Success is boring. Success is proving that you can do something that you already know you can do, or doing something correctly the first time, which can often be a problematical victory. First-time success is usually a fluke. First-time failure, by contrast, is expected; it is the natural order of things.
Failure is how we learn. I have been told of an African phrase describing a good cook as "she who has broken many pots." If you've spent enough time in the kitchen to have broken a lot of pots, probably you know a fair amount about cooking. I once had a late dinner with a group of chefs, and they spent time comparing knife wounds and burn scars. They knew how much credibility their failures gave them.
I earn my living by writing a daily newspaper column. Each week I am aware that one column is going to be the worst column of the week. I don't set out to write it; I try my best every day. Still, every week, one column is inferior to the others, sometimes spectacularly so.
I have learned to cherish that column. A successful column usually means that I am treading on familiar ground, going with the tricks that work, preaching to the choir or dressing up popular sentiments in fancy words. Often in my inferior columns, I am trying to pull off something I've never done before, something I'm not even sure can be done.
My younger daughter is a trapeze artist. She spent three years putting together an act. She did it successfully for years with the Cirque du Soleil. There was no reason for her to change the act — but she did anyway. She said she was no longer learning anything new and she was bored; and if she was bored, there was no point in subjecting her body to all that stress. So she changed the act. She risked failure and profound public embarrassment in order to feed her soul. And if she can do that 15 feet in the air, we all should be able to do it.
My granddaughter is a perfectionist, probably too much of one. She will feel her failures, and I will want to comfort her. But I will also, I hope, remind her of what she learned, and how she can do whatever it is better next time. I probably won't tell her that failure is a good thing, because that's not a lesson you can learn when you're five. I hope I can tell her, though, that it's not the end of the world. Indeed, with luck, it is the beginning.