“The absolute major challenge is not your schedule, organization, etc. …. It is your FEAR,” she announces in all caps.
I catch my breath.
“In order for you to go forward, you are going to have to decide that it is okay to fail. I’m not saying you will fail. I’m saying that when you have a ‘Plan B’ and it’s okay to fail, then it often releases people to go forward.”
She continues, “At this point, you are afraid of what folks are going to say, but more importantly, you’re afraid they will validate all of those nasty voices in your head that are telling you that you cannot do this.”
I meet this with wry laughter. It is all I can do.
It is so much easier to teach than to do. I can always provide better advice than I implement—for time management, for writing, for not overvaluing the opinions of others. I famously preach wisdom and good strategy to my high school students; why can’t I apply it to my own life effectively?
Several weeks ago, I was talking with a student, M, a young man, who was working on his research paper and consulting with me nearly every step of the way. He shared that he had taken my advice to chunk up the assignment in smaller segments, and then worked on one or more of them each day, rather than waiting until just before the due date to work on it and stressing out about it. He was exultant—it had worked for him! He was no longer the slacker student he claimed he had been in the previous three years of high school. He enjoyed the feelings of diligence and success.
I felt no small excitement for him…and no small hypocrisy of my own, as we sat in my classroom talking, my desk littered with stacks of ungraded assignments. So much easier to tell than do. Preach—success; practice—fail.
At the same time, in my AP classes, my students were writing to one of my favorite prompts, about a passage by a science writer concerning mistakes. It always leads to interesting conversation with and interesting writing from my students, and it’s also an annual reminder for me. It hit home a little more deeply this year, in light of the conversations I’ve been having with different people over the past couple of months.
In his 1979 book The Medusa and the Snail, biologist Lewis Thomas argues that mistakes are necessary. “We are built to make mistakes,” he writes, “coded for error.” He notes that it’s not without reason that we talk about learning by “trial and error” and not “trial and triumph.” He speaks of the “lucky laboratory” on a “lucky day” that a mistake is made, for “then the action can begin.”
If I run this through an overtly Christian filter, I might bristle at his celebratory application of the term “lucky” to our mistakes and note that the reason we are not perfect is our fallen nature, the taint of sin, which brings with it our separation from God. And that is certainly nothing to celebrate. But Thomas does not leave it there. “The misreading is not the important error; it opens the way. The next step is the crucial one. If the investigator can bring himself to say, ‘But even so, look at that!’ then the new finding, whatever it is, is ready for the snatching. What is needed, for progress to be made, is the move based on the error.”
So it is not that we make mistakes but how we respond to them—what we do in the next crucial moments—that matters. If we take our failures as an opportunity to beat the crap out of ourselves for failing yet again—sadly my own pattern, often—our mistakes will yield nothing of value; no “lucky day” in that approach. If, however, we take them as an opportunity to learn, to perceive matters from a different perspective (perhaps from the floor, possibly on our asses), they become the key to discovery. Even Thomas Edison, the man who is said to have found over a thousand ways not to make a light bulb, said that “many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” So failure is not the time to walk away; rather Lewis Thomas suggests that the real work has not begun until mistakes are made. Mistakes are useful because they demand a reaction.
Thomas elaborates that the argument, the debate, must necessarily precede the new discovery, that “there can be no action at all if there are not the two sides.” If we are in perfect agreement, we stop moving, stop thinking. In this light, his final grandiose proclamation is not so farfetched: “The hope is in the faculty of wrongness, the tendency toward error. The capacity to leap across mountains of information to land lightly on the wrong side represents the highest of human endowments.” Even our flaws and failures can be turned to good effect.
Apparently there is nothing God cannot redeem.
The implications of Thomas’s writing seem to suggest that we should not merely surround ourselves with likeminded thinkers but with those who might provide us with opposition. This is difficult for thin-skinned perfectionists who already see the myriad problems with their work and prefer to beat you to the punch of announcing it; it hurts less when I say it first. Most real learning and scientific breakthroughs come of the aftermath of mistakes, error, failure. I know this. I preach it to my students. And yet I don’t want it to be true of myself, don’t want it to apply to me. I was one of my AP kids, the kind who cares deeply about grades, and who blurs the concepts of learning and grade-earning (or rather, I saw them as different, but I wanted both in equal shares). I was the child who, according to my mother, walked late…but walked perfectly—that is, I watched and waited until I was sure I could do it, and then I did it without falling. Gah, it’s hard-wired! I hate falling. Falling hurts. And it’s embarrassing as hell. (I know this because I have fallen even as an adult, even in front of a class once. Mortifying.) Except I read all the books and stories that depict the time period after falling, failing, as being the most creative and fruitful times of people’s lives. Great literature, great films, great inspirational stories are full of those good examples who overcome their fears and refuse to be governed by them, despite the risks, and also of those tragedies who remain paralyzed by fear, thereby denying themselves lives of quality.
What if I fail? It’s really not a matter of if—it’s a matter of when. I am human and therefore flawed; I will fall sometimes. St. Benedict writes in his Rule, “Always we begin again.” This has become both my mantra (one of them) and my regular reminder.
Failing to act because of fear of failure—that would be the biggest regret-worthy failure of all.
Fear paralyzes. I have to move.
If (when) I fail…I’ll have to pick back up and begin again.
I’ll have to remind myself that there is nothing God cannot redeem.
I guess I’ll go sit and write.