So, here’s a scenario. You, single, lookin to meet someone. You’re perusing the offerings at Match.com when you come across an attractive stranger whose specs are all to your liking. Then, let’s say, he describes himself: “Big Ol Failure!”
…I’m guessing you’d pass?
You’d hardly be alone. Success, after all, is a virtue in our world; failure, something to be ashamed of.
But. A new book says that, “in a complex world, the process of trial and error is essential.” The book, written by Financial Times columnist Tim Harford, is called “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure.” And while the book is business-leaning, the point–that it’s the mistakes that beget the great successes–seems pretty applicable to Life In General.
Of course, failure’s scary. But, without it, what is life? If we’re here to learn, to change, to grow, to discover who we are and what we want to do with ourselves while we’re here, well–all of those things involve taking steps into the unknown. And, like someone wandering an unfamiliar town, we’re likely to take a couple missteps. We may even fall flat on our collective face. But, with every stumble, every accidental dead-end, we get a little bit clearer about the road we do want to follow.
Makes sense–but then, it’s easy to speak in metaphor. It’s a lot harder to cut ourselves that kind of slack in our actual lives. We’d prefer to never get fired, dumped, disappointed, bored, scared, angry, or lost again. But I feel pretty certain that we will. (Admit it, you know I’m right.) After all, in a way, our mistakes are our lives. They’re certainly every bit as significant as our successes.
And so imagine if we weren’t so tied to the outcomes of the things we try. When we’re making the big decisions of our lives, what if our ego didn’t give a shit whether we’d come out on top? What if we chose to believe that there are no right or wrong decisions, only choices that we’ll live with? What if we realized that failure might, in fact, be inevitable–and went for it anyway? It reminds me of this quote from Elizabeth Gilbert that I wrote about some time ago:
Let’s just anticipate that we (all of us) will disappoint ourselves somehow in the decade to come. Go ahead and let it happen. Let somebody else go to art school. Let somebody else have a happy marriage, while you foolishly pick the wrong guy. (Hell, I’ve done it; it’s survivable.) While you’re at it, take the wrong job. Move to the wrong city. Blow it all catastrophically, in fact, and then start over with good cheer. This is what we all must learn to do, for this is how maps get charted–by taking wrong turns that lead to surprising passageways that open into spectacularly unexpected new worlds. So just march on. Future generations will thank you–trust me–for showing them the way, for beating brave new footpaths out of wonky old mistakes.
In medicine, doctors make diagnoses by ruling things out. Seems a pretty sane approach in life, too, doncha think? I mean, maybe I’m wrong about all this. In which case… great! I’ll try something else tomorrow.