Tuesday, November 19, 2013

You Have to Try to Fail

You have to try to fail
You have to try to fail
You have to try to fail

  1. You have to try to fail - it takes effort and directed attention in order to fail at anything.
  1. You have to try to fail - You have to try first before you can fail.
  1. You have to try to fail - You need to try to fail. It is good and necessary.

This phrase entered in my mind the other day. I've since let it bump around while trying to parse the different possible interpretations. I'll discard the first out of hand, and share the two that most resonated to me.

You have to try to fail - You have to try first before you can ever fail.

This is perhaps the simplest evident interpretation, and by far the most depressing. It is the sad assertion that in order to ever fail, you have to first try. If you do not sign up in the talent show, you cannot embarrass yourself onstage. I think this is the unspoken reason behind many fears. It happens in career, academic work, relationships, anything that could result in a clear evaluation of you and your effort/worth. When success in an important endeavor is uncertain, there is an irrational voice that whispers it's better to not try than to try and fail.1

Why? Well, at the moment, you only think you might be a failure. If you try and it doesn't work, that's worse, because then you know you are, and everyone else knows it too.

However wrongheaded the reasoning of this argument, I've seen it is remarkably effective in preventing action. Many people perform at a level far below their capabilities, because they dislike the sting of failure and fear the social judgment (or self-judgment) that comes from trying and not making it.

You have to try to fail - You need to try to fail. It is good and necessary.

I think it's safe to assume that most people look on failure as inherently bad, the definition of "not success". Above all, it's something we'd rather avoid. But let's see if there's a silver lining. What benefits can failure bestow?

For one, failure is a very accurate form of feedback. I've noticed that improvement is difficult in tasks where failure is not readily apparent. It's sad to shoot and miss the bullseye, but to shoot and have no way of knowing whether you hit the bullseye or a passing hiker is far worse.

Resilience can grow from repeated failure
The first street contact a missionary makes is terrifying. You are speaking to a person about the most important thing in the world, you can't speak the language and if you get it wrong… DON'T GET IT WRONG. But then you get it wrong, or right, and the person leaves, and there are still dozens of people on the street. After several hundred repetitions, you realize that you have nothing to lose by trying. Nothing except your fear. There is no risk. There is only experience and strength to be gained. And once in a very, very long time, there is success.
This holds when asking for dates, applying for jobs, or conversing with random strangers. The first failures are painful, but life can only crush your tender hopes so many times before your heart goes "Hey. What I worried about happened… and I'm still ok." This quickly grows into "What ehVAH! I'ma shrug that off!" After that, you walk around like superman as insults or glares bounce off, meanwhile collecting a wealth of friends and stories beyond your wildest expectations2.

Other virtues
Failure can frequently give perspective3. Furthermore, as humans we are loss-averse, and tend to inflate the negative consequences of failure. And even with the big things, there's a wide world full of opportunities out there. If you flunk out of law school, you could probably pick up a job waiting tables by a Florida beachfront, reflect on life and catch some waves and find meaningful goals there. Happiness is not a one-shot thing.
Building onto that, you could add that failure can lead to a whole host of virtues, including humility, empathy, patience, and many other worthy and admirable traits. At least as long as we take it the right way.

You feel like you're really stretching here, Joseph.
Ok, so there are some semi-positive results of failure. But that's like saying there are semi-positive results of toddlers falling flat on their faces-- it doesn't mean we should try to make it happen (we shouldn't).
Are there times when failure should be sought for? Here's one possibility:

If you never fail to hit any of your goals, then you're not aiming high enough.

Failing to achieve superficial goals vs. Failing to grow
That assertion suggests that occasional failure indicates we are in a zone of true growth. The exercise analogy of "working to failure" seems applicable here. When lifting weights, you push your muscles till they fail. You can do dozens of repetitions using light weights, but if you do not push yourself to failure, your growth will be very limited. Similarly, if you easily meet all of your goals all the time, chances are they aren't high enough to make you improve. 

This definition:
Failure = not achieving 100% of the 12 set repetition.

...is very different from this definition:
Failure = not achieving growth and improvement

With this perspective, we redefine failure from "not getting the thing I want right now" to "losing out on long term plans and growth".

Which definition do we judge ourselves by? Getting a perfect score on the test is a secondary characteristic. The primary one-- be it understanding the material or becoming a person of character and faith--that is the real goal. And it cannot be achieved without a lot of trip-ups and difficulties along the way. We can and should improve as fast as possible, but we cannot allow fear of failure to impede effort.

Acknowledgment and Response
While I trivialize failure here, I'd also like to acknowledge that sometimes the stakes do matter. There are life-altering decisions and terrible pressures before us all. Failure--especially repeated failure, devoid of encouragement or hope-- can have devastating consequences on a person's life outlook and sense of self-worth4. If you've ever seen a small child with no hand-eye coordination who has been reduced to apathy in a sport, you'll know what I mean. But if his team trains him, sends the ball his way, and shepherds him in for an assisted goal, his attitude can make a surprising turnaround. Sometimes people just need a taste of success.

There is a balance between success and failure. We need enough success to have hope, and maybe we even need failure to teach us and strengthen us.5

As Elder Uchtdorf put it: "As long as we are willing to rise up again and continue on the path toward the spiritual goals God has given us, we can learn something from failure and become better and happier as a result."6

In this sense, I think the only true failure in life is when we disengage and abandon the worthy goals before us. If we hold fast to our hopes despite temporary stumbles, what now appear to be losses may, in the light of an eternal perspective, become our moments of great triumph.

Reframing in an eternal perspective

We often talk of how Christ is our perfect example. If He never sinned, never failed, then why should failure be a good thing for us?

Look at it this way. Christ never failed. But what if we judged Him according to the criteria we often use on each other or on ourselves?

Because he didn't convince the Pharisees to repent. The majority of his own people and religion rejected him.  His church was so tenuous that its leaders basically left to go back to their old jobs after the Resurrection. Isaiah's prophecies of a triumphant and freed Israel remained unfulfilled. What few followers he had would suffer persecution from the Jews and then the Romans. Within a relatively short time, almost every single authorized priesthood holder of the original church would either die or apostatize.

That is the outward measure of success and failure.

But a truer account can be found in the Gospels. There, we see a Savior who lived a perfect example of meekness and service, whose teachings would resonate throughout the world for millennia. Seen through an eye of faith, our dead ends, dreams deferred, and even our mistakes can take on a new meaning. Let us discern whether an event brings us closer to or farther from God before judging it as a success or failure.  Let us be careful not to confuse frustration or difficulty with failure. As long as we are living up to our covenants, victory is ultimately guaranteed.

1The statement that "not trying is failing too" is true, but the following realization that "you've therefore failed at everything ever that you've never done, as well as many of the ones you did try to do" tends to be a little too depressing to be helpful to my friends.

2And the dirty looks and bad experiences will be surprising rare in my experience.

3Check out part 2 of this post by a friend of mine. Or this one. Or this one. In fact, just go read his whole blog.

4Learned helplessness, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learned_helplessness, http://www.ppc.sas.upenn.edu/lh.htm

5What's a good ratio? I have no idea, but personally, I wouldn't mind a nice 90/100 win/fail ratio on meaningful goals, amiright? Heh heh.... But I get the feeling mine is way lower than that.


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