If At First You Don’t Succeed…
“The try and the fail, the two things I hate…” -Jay Z
It starts off small. Sea monkeys. Remember those sea monkey kits? I never could get my sea monkeys to hatch. All I ever managed to get was a tiny aquarium of murky, stink water, where all I ever managed to see were my tiny hopes and dreams dashed. I believed in sea monkeys!!! I tried several times to witness the wonders of a mini under sea world come to life before my eyes. I followed all the instructions, but all I ever got was murky, stink water. They made it look so simple, so I must have done something wrong. I must have failed some how, right?
It starts off small, but it can expand quickly.
The try: auditioning for theater company in high school. The fail: getting rejected two years in a row.
The try: starting college and double majoring in English and Speech Communications. The fail: having to drop out thousands of dollars in debt.
The try: feeling empowered to start my own small business. The fail: worrying excessively about start up money and possible failure, then not following through.
The try: earning a livable wage while pursuing my dreams. The Fail?
Free Trial Period
I have tried and failed many things. Until fairly recently, I believed that made me a failure. Trying and failing, it doesn’t feel good. And no matter how many times it happens, it never gets any easier. It always sucks. If I may borrow from Jay-Z, trying and failing are two things I hate.
Correction: Now that I think about it, I don’t hate trying. There’s a reason I’ve tried all the things I have tried. To try, is to take a risk. To try, is to be willing. To try, is to hope, to experiment, and to learn something new. I have tried a lot of things, and many of those things failed miserably, but I don’t regret trying. As long as I learned something, none of my efforts are wasted.
If I apply the same grace to my failures as I do my attempts, then every so-called failure is actually a teachable moment. Scientist have to do experiments in order to test their hypothesis. If the outcome disproves their theory, they adjust the experiment and test a new hypothesis. I love to learn (I am a proud nerd), so, really… I can no longer consciously hate “The fail” either.
Should I even label the things I’ve tried, that did not go the way I planned, as failures? And if my failures aren’t really failures, then how can I think of myself as one?
You see, I get these residual failure pains. Whenever something I attempt doesn’t come out the way I planned, I internalize it as a character defect, and the pain lingers long after the loss. I have spent so much of my life feeling like a “constant screw up”, “the family disappointment”, and other colorful self-deprecating titles. And I played the roles dutifully. However, the real truth is I am not a screw up: I am a person who tries many things; I am willing to risk; and I dare to hope.
In Spring 2015, I took part in this crazy 5k called WipeOut Run that involves an obstacle course of ridiculous proportion. There is foam, and swings, and inflatables, and big red balls galore, including the unforgiving wrecking ball. This event can be made even more epic when participants fully commit to the foolishness by wearing costumes. Being a book nerd, I decided to create a costume inspired by one of my favorite books. I started a team for friends and fellow book nerds, and I gave us an awesome name befitting our love of words. The team name, you ask? The False In Our Starts.
The team name was an homage to a great book I adore, “The Fault in Our Stars” by John Green. Even more perfect, Green’s title was already an homage… to Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet! (Do I get double points for literary cleverness?) What is less obvious about the name choice is that it is also a metaphor, influenced by the idea of the false start in the creative process. The concept was first introduced to me by a great guy named John Pluecker.
Tried and True
Allow me to introduce you to John. We met while I was working for an art, culture, and community organization called Project Row Houses. John Pluecker, with his organization Antena created an installation at PRH. As part of the installation, John was the creator and facilitator of a read/write club. He created a space and an experience where students, community members, and artist could buy and read books, talk about them, then create our own words inspired by them, and share them. He introduced me to experimental poetry, several daring new writers of color, and to small-press and handcrafted DIY works from independent presses. We got to meet with, or skype, some of the authors whose work we read. John supplemented each session with audio recordings from the authors, music, and visual media made by or which influenced the works we studied. My fellow participants made authentic connections by relating to the works we read and sharing our own personal experiences.
My favorite part was the writing sessions. I started taking myself and my writing more seriously after being a part of Antena’s read/write club. At first, I felt intimidated, because I didn’t think I was a “real writer” or a “true artist”, and I was afraid I had no talent and that everyone would realize that I didn’t belong. However, John created an environment of inclusion, support, and encouragement that allowed me to break out of my timid shell and be less fearful about sharing my work. As a matter of fact, it was John’s words that helped me have words to share in the first place, when he introduced me to the concept of the creative false start.
After each writing session, John would open the floor for us to share what we had written. We could have called it a read/write/show & tell club. He noticed that I was usually reluctant to share. I hesitated to share, because my work was often so incomplete. I always felt like I was just getting started when it was time to end. As he looked at the pages I had written, he noticed all the scratch outs, all the starts and stops, and all the editing. I opened up with John about my work being incomplete, and I told him about how I felt compelled to constantly begin again. I was unproductively trying to process my thoughts, capture my ideas, and improve them all at the same time. I would decide that something wasn’t working, then I’d get a better idea, or the thoughts would finally come together, and I would be compelled to rewrite.
John told me, “Each false start has meaning and value. You could go with it. You can use them”. His words were simple yet powerful to me. Immediately, it was as if they created new synaptic pathways in my brain: the work I had already done was useful; it could lead me to what I really wanted to say and do. John even found me a book in which the author repurposed his various false starts. It was an entire book of false starts! Before John rewired my brain, I had only ever associated false starts with racing.
As a kid, my friends and I were very serious about racing. We would quickly disqualify anyone whose toes went over the starting line or started running before “GO!” was called out. In racing, false starts get you in trouble; they get you disqualified. Now the definition of a false start has expanded to include any unsuccessful attempt to begin something. The idea of a false start having value and meaning was therefore revolutionary to me. It’s been a few years since I learned this from John, but it has stuck with me ever since.
As an overly critical, self-inhibited writer/creative artist, false starts happen. Our minds are a wealth of ideas, a playground of projects, but all these possibilities can lead to starting things but not finishing them. Especially if we have perfectionist issues! (For instance, that last sentence isn’t a complete one. Don’t tell the Grammar Nazis.) This is an important paradigm shift for me, as a recovering self-destructive who viewed every mistake as, not only a failure but, a personal character flaw and evidence that I was a screw up and family disappointment.
Try, Try Again!
“My life has been long, and believing that LIFE LOVES THE LIVER OF IT, I have dared to try many things, sometimes trembling, but daring still”.
In effect, John Pluecker rescued me from myself, with his insights. Every false start/misstep/mistake is usable, not punishable. They are experiential learning opportunities. This new perspective is especially valuable to other writers and creatives, who constantly struggle with an inner resistance that keeps us from creating and completing our work. Ultimately though, it is helpful to anyone grappling with The Try and The Fail.
Maybe you are a blogger, like me, having trouble completing and sharing posts. Perhaps you are a creative artist struggling to complete and share your work. Perhaps you messed up at work. Perhaps you screwed up in a relationship. Or maybe you are having trouble forgiving yourself for all the time you feel has been wasted, trying things and not succeeding at them, on the road less traveled, yet full of obstacles and detours, and making mistakes while figuring things out. None of it is time wasted. It has meaning and value… if we allow it to teach us.
I really enjoy reading your comments, and would love to hear from you. What’s one of your try and fail experiences? How are you redifining what failure and success mean to you?
If you’d like to learn more about the amazing work John Pluecker and Antena are doing, please visit them at antenaantena.org.