After writing up a pretty ambitious plan — to jump up two levels in my personal social hierarchy — it seems like this is a good time to reflect on the possibility of failure. This is a chapter in my continuing The Obstacle is theWay writing project.
This is a short chapter. Two pages. It could easily be one if there weren’t so much whitespace. Still, it includes an important message: things might not work out.
It begins with a quote from Seneca:
In themeantime, cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, not to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases.
Some things are out of your control. Fortune is a fickle goddess and cannot be forced by any measure of willpower to bend to our desires. Some things go wrong.
In this chapter Ryan Holiday points out that we can use failure as an opportunity to practice other virtues, such as humility. But, that doesn’t seem like it would make me feel better. I can’t imagine myself looking at the ashes of a project and thinking “well, at least I get to practice humility.”
My relationship with failure
In my heart, I’m a kid to whom things always came easily — or not at all. I was a good student and got a great SAT score without studying. My grades were fine and I got through college on my ability to read and be curious about anything. There was not much hard work involved.
In fact, the first time I really invested hard work over time — learning German — was more about proving something to people who thought I couldn’t do it. Even now, I can remember the feeling when I realized that my German was not bad, and that nobody but I would really appreciate the hard work and willpower that went into it.
It was a good feeling, and I liked to know that I had that in me.
Of course, I didn’t tap into that ability again for a long time. I made it through the National Guard based on an attitude of ‘do the minimum, but do it cheerfully’ and college was not super hard.
Not until I decided to get in shape did I need to remind myself that I had capacities that I had hidden away from the world.
Hidden is a good word, because I’d grown up with the philosophy of “if at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you ever tried.” Don’t let people see you fail, and they’ll think you’re a wunderkind. (Told you I learned German!)
It’s hard to run secretly, though. And people are going to look if you do burpees in the park.
Fitness — an area where I strive visibly for pretty modest success — was my first encounter with public failure.
Coding was a secret passion for well over two years before I began sharing it. And, even now, the teacher I respect most — my boss — doesn’t know that I have an amazing worksheet creation tool. If she doesn’t like it — or understand what it does — that would feel like failure to me.
I can’t fail
It’s a weird thing to say, especially in a reflection on a chapter titled “prepare for none of it to work,” but it’s true: I can’t fail.
The project might be a flop. It’s possible that it will always lose money and I’ll have to admit that the idea was only great for me. (Just yesterday, I heard a former and present student of mine talking about how much they loved the worksheets I make — so that seems unlikely).
And, I might spend years of my life with people asking “whatever happened to that website you talked about so much.”
The fact of the matter is, though, that I can’t fail. Already, I’m learning things like how AdWords works. As well as setting up a django site.
To that end, as long as I have a list of projects I’d like to apply that experience to, I can’t fail.