February 20, 2019

Please fail

When Jon snow accepted his defeat to Ser Davos in trying to unite the night's watch, saying "I don't know how to do that, I thought I did but... I failed". Ser Davos firmly replied, "Good, go fail again". You may not be big on Game of Thrones but regardless, when you hear someone giving the advice to "go fail again" it is sure to short circuit some distant buried part in your nervous system.

I remember back in 2008 when I was still in school and had to for the first time, speak in front of people. People with eyes, with prying eyes, who'll notice if I made a boo-boo on stage. I wasn't to say much, just a vote of thanks thanking everyone for showing up and hoping they had a good time. All of which would have lasted hardly for no more than 2 minutes.

Have you noticed how time slows down during the moments of fuck-ups and you remember the exact details 10 years later? Yes? Let me fill you in with my details. The moment I began forming the first word inside my mouth I felt a rush of blood from my head straight to my toes, a semisolid lump of saliva forcing its way down my throat, warm ears the stares my heart pumping outside my body the numbness the inability to move my jaws or force air out of my throat and a voice that wasn't mine constantly whispering, "say something". Then as someone pulled me off stage and the sense of reality came rushing in I snapped back to realise, a boo-boo was committed. I had failed and I felt terrible.

Feeling terrible after experiencing failure is a learned behaviour. When was the first time you learned how to fail? When did you start fearing its consequences? Maybe the first time you failed was at aiming a spoon in your mouth. You landed it straight on your right cheekbone and laughed it off and everyone else laughed along with you. As you grew older you started failing at bigger things, you went to school, that's where you learned to fail is a bad thing.

Our schools and educational institutions are exceptionally good at ramming the idea that failure is bad into our heads. Their entire job is to keep us from failing and to be made to feel worthless if we do. F is always written in red and big and circled so much so that you can hear the ink scream "You're worthless" at you. Which might as well be true if passing or failing a subject at school decided the entire trajectory of your life from that point onwards. But it doesn't, life is too big to be decreed by a single insignificant event. What this ridicule of failure does, though, is creates a pattern in your brain. A pattern that constantly whispers, fail equals bad, fail equals feel terrible.

Eventually, you conform yourself to this self-conceived pattern of fail - feel terrible, fail - feel terrible, fail - feel terrible and who wants to feel terrible so you zap off the head of the pattern. No failure equals no feeling terrible. When you stop failing just to keep yourself safe from feeling terrible, you win, but you also lose, glamourously. Keeping yourself from failing to avoid feeling terrible is boldly assuming a false fact that, that is the only thing failure brings. It's assuming that the place where failure swings you into after encounter is a pit of despair and self-loathing. That is absolutely wrong. When you fail you don't wake up in a pit but rather in a vast open expanse that I call the unknown. And facing the unknown is frightening, in contrast to this, lying and feeling terrible is the safest thing to do.

Failure promises you the unknown. It hands you an opportunity to learn. Learning something new by definition means knowing something you didn't know before. You already know what not publishing your work feels like, what you don't know is what publishing your work and then letting people criticise it feels like. That's one type of unknown. You already know what not working on that idea you have feels like, what you don't know is what putting in the hours and sending it into the world feels like. You already know what not quitting your day job to start your own venture feels like, you feel it every day, it's the familiar. What you don't know is what quitting it to go after your dream feels like, that's not familiar, that's the unknown. And that's the promise of failure, to push you beyond the comfortable so you can learn something new about yourself, about the world, about your work. Your mind soaking in that brand new knowledge is exactly what growth means.

The more you find yourself in the unknown the better you learn to traverse it, the better you know how you ended up there. The more familiar you get with this pattern the less likely you are to end up in the unknown again and even if you do, been there done that! It'll all at one point stop being scary. What was once unexplored territory to you will slowly become more and more familiar. Embrace the unknown, god knows what you'll find there. The passion you and the whole internet keeps whining about, maybe it's there, in the unknown. Mother nature doesn't fist shove a passion up your ass the day you are born. Each of us is endowed with a range of abilities on a lottery. It's up to you to discover what your unique combination works for. And discovering means exploring and exploring means failure, a ton of it.

Here's how you will know when you discover your knack for something, it'll be the one thing you won't mind failing at, repeatedly. It is true that you can be truly successful only at something you're willing to fail at.

Even when you discover your knack there is no way you're going to be instantly killer at it. Unless you're magically gifted, which fuck you you're not. You will never realise your passion for something unless you have spent hours failing at it. Love at first sight is a lie, first comes interest, a knack, then a thousand failures and only then passion arrives. So keep failing at things, please fail to discover your passion.

The one thing I will always be grateful for is that the right person pulled me off the stage. Even though I was feeling terrible, I wasn't made to feel that way. Instead what followed was participation in elocution competitions, poetry recitations, debates... you name it. I failed at them a ton. Maybe we both felt the knack I had for public speaking during rehearsals. I didn't mind failing, she didn't mind making me fail. Until eventually I had failed so many times I knew every path to every fuck up that can possibly occur on stage. It took me 7 years, until I was in my sophomore year in college to completely lose the fear of public speaking. I wonder what would have happened if someone else had pulled me off stage, made me sit down and feel bad about fucking up. I wonder what if I hadn't failed my way to complete abandonment of social judgement and fear of public speaking. I wonder what if someone hadn't asked me without saying a word, to "go fail again".