Learning To Fail

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When I was in college my music history professor assigned our class a project which was in essence decoding medieval music notation. To say it was a challenge would be an understatement. However, the most memorable moment to me was when my group presented our project and one of my classmates asked a question regarding the music that we had not anticipated. I tried to answer the question with the knowledge I had but he persisted on a certain point. To this day the emotions come rushing back; the room getting warmer even seeming to spin, my annoyance at my fellow group members—why in hell were they not at least trying to help—and my own panic at feeling completely lost. When class was over my professor took me aside and said “You know, it really is ok if you don’t know the answer.” While I still remember and value her words I struggle every day with their application.
Not knowing the answer, failing, losing–call it what you will has never been something that I’m altogether comfortable with. In fact while I had the idea of this piece around the time I started this blog it took me another four weeks to actually write it. Judging by that I might have more issues with failure then I realized.
Part of my issue is due to my perfectionism which I’m fairly certain I have all on my own. It’s not that my family didn’t have high standards but eventually I became my own worst critic. I was also a procrastinator too which understandably confused my parents and teachers. After all why would someone who is such a high achiever wait until the last minute to practice or finish projects and risk the negative consequences? It wasn’t until much later that someone (and sadly I’m not even sure who) told me it was actually perfectly understandable because as it turns out perfectionism and procrastination are symbiotic. Perfectionism makes you afraid to put out any kind of work that’s less than perfect which triggers procrastination—to put it off “for later” when perhaps subconsciously you are putting it off until you can do it perfectly (which more often than not doesn’t tend to happen).
I suppose I’ve been thinking about these issues lately because lately I’ve honestly felt like a failure in my own life. Don’t get me wrong, I knew that pursuing music would be challenging. However as I look at myself—almost twenty-five, working retail with a bad case of (song) writer’s block—I’ve been questioning the choices I’ve made and wondering if I can’t become rich and/or famous what path would provide me with enough of a feeling of success to make me happy. The fact that I’m having trouble answering that question fills me with just as much angst as my not having the answer for my classmate during that presentation. Yet I still hear my professor as well, “…it really is ok if you don’t know the answer.”
For the past few years I have been trying to learn to fail. When I say this I don’t mean that I’m not trying to achieve goals or intentionally trying to mess up my life as much as possible (though some days it feels like it) but rather that I’m trying to accept and learn from failure when it happens. There is a value in failing. Failure can allow us to reexamine our lives and priorities so that we can find out what went wrong and be better prepared for the journey ahead. As the great Thomas Edison said of his several failed experiments to create the light bulb, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
Ultimately though, the main reason I’m trying to learn to fail is because the only thing that’s worse than failing is being fearful and not trying. If anything allowing fear to take control is the real failure–to not perform, to not write, to be paralyzed with inaction because of a fear of what “others” will think. Franklin D. Roosevelt said “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” How many of us don’t do something because we fear failure and then wonder what could have been? It is true that if we don’t put our talents out into the world no one can reject us or criticize us but no one will ever praise us either.
With all this being said I am still learning not to have all the answers and to accept and learn from failure. I hope that in doing so I can find a path as an artist and as a human being that will bring me greater happiness and success—in short that by learning to fail I can learn to fly.

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3 thoughts on “Learning To Fail

  1. Wow, great post! Congratulations on putting it out there, despite the risk that it might not be perfect yet!
    No matter where your perfectionism comes from, I think you’re right in fighting it. You seem to have been gathering valuable insights to assist you in that fight! Way to go :)!
    If I may be so bold to ask: do you also have trouble to enjoy what you’re doing because of your fear of failure? I tend to be so anxious if I’m doing well that I miss out on all the happiness my peers experience while doing the same thing. Do you recognize this?

    • Sometimes I do have to force myself to get out to play or pick up the guitar when I’m afraid I can’t play a song as well as it sounds on the album or as well as someone else can. For the most part though I can get past whatever issues I have and enjoy performing. I’d actually say my worst issues are probably with songwriting because I’ll find myself looking at whatever words I’ve written and just tearing them apart…”This sounds clichéd and awful…(My artistic hero of the day but usually The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, The Black Keys, or Jack White) would never write crap like this, etc. Of course then that leads to songs not actually being written and extra writer’s block. Part of the reason I started the blog was so I could start writing again (start with less threatening prose and work my way to poetry). I hope this answers your question and thanks for your responses thus far:-)

      • Glad to hear you can enjoy performing! Music is a wonderful thing in which we can lose ourselves and find ourselves in new ways by doing so :).

        As for songwriting: it’s so relatable that you only see the mistakes ;)! I’ve been trying to change my perspective on what I do lately by forcing myself to write down every little thing that’s even remotely good about it. It works wonders :)! Perhaps it’ll work for you too? Next time you do some songwriting, catch yourself before you tear it up, walk away and cool down a bit, then return and make a list of every little thing that’s good about it. Think of:

        – It rhymes well
        – The meter is correct, and it feels good to sing
        – The grammar and spelling is correct
        – This or that word is in the right place; it’s the climax of the sentence on the climax of the melody

        And so on. Try to take a different perspective, to spot everything that’s good about it. The more often you do that, the easier it becomes to spot the good things in your work and others’ without forcing yourself to. It helps me to overcome that dreaded paralysis and to enjoy what I do even if it could be better. And in the end, that actually improves my performance :)!

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