Friday’s Inspiration – Fail!

I’ve been thinking a lot about failure lately. Maybe it was my time spent in Bishop where problems that were rated easy for me (in the gym) kicked my ass and spit me off into the dry hot high dessert air. In the video above world renowned climber, Chris Sharma, fails over and over, and in the end, well I wont ruin it for you.

But I don’t just think about failure on the rock.

Maybe it is my obsession with the left and what my friend Subhash Kateel describes as the thing we “obnoxiously call the movement,” and my over a decade working in grassroots and student organizations opposing so many injustices, but never seeing the massive justice, the deep change, I profess to want to see.

Maybe it is my return, over and over,  to the book The Queer Art of Failure by Judith Halberstam, that looks at not just individual failure, but where main stream society and the narratives that maintain it fail, the cracks, and in those cracks the space for a radical reinvention of not just individuals, but of those narratives that shape what we think is possible, and normal.

Maybe it was the really bad lifting session at the gym yesterday when I couldn’t press the weight my plan told me I pressed a month ago, and I was so tired that I didn’t finish my workout.

That is me.

Regardless of the reason failing is on my mind.

Of course, I think of the cliché, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again,” (according to wikipedia first written by this dude). Clichés are clichés, because they ring true for people (if because we have heard them over and over, or because they hold some intrinsic logic for us, I leave that up to you). But this cliché never rang true for me.

Why would I throw myself at a task over and over just to fail over and over? That sucks.  In fact, as described in Thinking Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman, we humans weight failure far more than success. This means when we fail the emotional and psychological toll is greater than the pay off from success.

Losing hurts more than winning feels good.

When I hear “try, try, try again,” I get the idea that 1. success is the goal (defined by who), 2. the failure is within me, it is a deficit I carry, and by attempting, over and over, I will change my own character and succeed.

In talking with a friend, and amazing climber, last night about rock climbing he clearly said to me, “Rock climbing is one of the most ridiculous activities. You shouldn’t do it just to finish a problem and move on to the next harder problem. You should work the problems you’ve already sent and refine your movements. It is all about movement and grace. That is what all the old guys understood. I mean, if you wanted to get on top of the boulder no matter what, go get a fucking ladder.

He redefines the goal, and the success. It is an interesting shift, and challenge to a newer climber. It is also an interesting challenge to me as I think about my political work. This challenge sounds so much like the thing I am  frustrated with in the work – the idea that the process is the goal as opposed to the outcome. I need to think more about this.

And what if the thing that makes me fail is not the deficit in me, or you, or the other losers out there? What if failure is our state of existence? What if failure is where we live, and success, well that is chance? Of course this idea plays out more in cultural/economic endeavors where rules and laws are not as static as rules and laws in the world of hard science, or rather the physical world.

Sometimes failure is inscribed in our skin and the skin of those around us. How do you say to women (collectively) if at first you dont make as much as men on average just try, try, try again? How do you say to young Black men in New York City who are getting frisked to try harder at not getting frisked?  Clearly it is not the trying that matters, it is the conditions in the trying.

What would it mean to accept failure as a state of being, as a place where we can reevaluate not only our own efforts, but the full context in which we are functioning? Could we find pathways that were non-existant before?

To be corny, this is what rock climbing teaches me.

It isn’t about trying the same damn thing over and over. It is about falling, failing, and pausing, looking at the problem, doing it in your head, interrogating your own assumptions about how you assume the flow of movements are, and trying completely new things, which actually might be right.

Of course on the rock you are expected to fail, in life not so much, even though the biggest failure possible as living things, death, is inevitable.


About JTP

An occasional reader, an occasional writer, an occasional podcast producer, an occasional strategist.
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4 Responses to Friday’s Inspiration – Fail!

  1. seanv2 says:

    A lot going on in this post thanks for writing it. I’ve got two points.

    One, sport is important because it gives us a space to fail without consequences. My failure on a boulder problem means nothing, but failure at my job has real consequences for me and my clients. Sport then gives us a place to experiment and to push boundaries of what we think we can do, making it easier to function in more high stakes environments with confidence.

    Two, chance plays a key role in success, but it isn’t the only component. As someone once said to me, “work hard so you’ll be there, and ready, when luck gives you an opportunity.” If you aren’t in shape on the perfect fall day, you won’t run a PR; if your organization isn’t in place, you won’t be able to capitalize on a new development.

  2. MM says:

    Absolutely agree on both points.

    But I do think people put too much emphasis on the notion that you can predict the future and their is a straight line between here and there as long as I do x,y,z. Not to get too reductionist we can think of it this way, I am fully prepared for work, I leave the house 45 minutes before I have to be there, and it only takes 30 minutes. And then someone crashes two planes into the twin towers. Predictions of my day, expectations, all of it completely evaporate.

    So what do we do with that? We do prepare. Luck will favor those who prepare. But preparation does not lead to success, especially in the world of culture and economics.

    That is why my comparison of failure on the rock, and out in the world, is off base. The rock wont change from one climb to the next (typically, although when i was climbing outside rock chips would rip off the wall all the time and suddenly the whole problem would change). Your strength wont change dramatically day to day, and in fact you predict with some accuracy increase or decreases in strength and skill. But out in the real world the multitude of unpredictable factors is incomprehensible.

  3. Jed Brandt says:

    Form follows function.
    Fitness without health? Vanity.
    Process without goal? American cheese.

    Having eaten through bricks of government cheese, I want food. To grow, cook, share and eat.

    That is reasonable.

    • MM says:

      I agree with you on the process without goal piece. The form follows function piece i have been thinking a lot about recently, especially while reading some Hannah Arendt. What is function followed form?

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