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.
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.