For the Love of Failing


I’d like to be good at something. I mean really fantastically amazingly sublimely good at something.

I’m not really sure what that something is, though. I should mention that I’m already quite proficient at a lot of things–sleeping, eating, doing my job, cooking, reading, watching rom coms. But sometimes I have an urge to be utterly brilliant at something else. A something that will make me feel bigger than a drop in the ocean (like maybe I could be a whole cupful). Or a something that will “contribute to society.” Or a something that just makes my brain feel all buzzy and juicy.

I could, of course, psychoanalyze this urge, pinpoint the underlying insecurities that motivate it, and work on loving myself just the way I am. (And I have and I do and I will. And I, officially, recommend it.)

But for the space of this post, I’d rather just go with that initial desire. I’m officially giving myself permission to wallow in unreality and daydreams and fantasies and little sparks of ideas that seem like they could expand into massive fireworks-type schemes.

But the question is, how do I find the Thing? (I can’t help thinking of Michael Jackson singing “It’s your thing, girl, do whatcha wanna do-ooo!”) Obviously, I could start with something I’m already kind of good at.

The problem is, I often equate aptitude with potential, imagining that each person is born with a finite amount for a given task. But the root of aptitude is, of course, apt. As in, I’m apt to do this or that (i.e., I’m apt to watch a whole season of Gilmore Girls in one weekend. Just an example. I’m not saying I actually do that….often). Aptitude implies interest more than potential. (Thanks to my boss, John Hinchey, for this observation.)

In a March 2012 interview with T Hetzel on the radio show Living Writers, poet Lizzie Hutton said, “I enjoy so much practicing writing poetry.”

Malcolm Gladwell would probably say that’s what makes Hutton such a good poet. He argues, in his very interesting and fun-to-read book Outliers, that people who are really really good at something (aka geniuses) are not just naturals. They’re the people who have practiced the most. In fact, they actually like to practice, and they do a heck of a lot of practicing. Like 10,000 hours worth. To give you an idea of how much time that is, think about this: if you spent 40 hours a week doing your thing, and you only took 2 weeks of vacation and sick leave, you’d accumulate 2,000 hours a year. That’s also known as a full-time job (at least in the U.S.). Basically, to become really really good at something, you have to like practicing it, and you have to do it all the time.

Peter Bregman points out in his not-quite-as-fun-to-read-but-also-quite-interesting book 18 minutes that practicing something and being good at something are two very different things. When you practice something, he says, you mostly fail at it. The example he uses is doing a handstand: if you want to do a handstand, you have to fail at doing a handstand. You have to fail over and over and over again. And to make that task interesting and worthwhile (and palatable), you have to like failing.

So, I guess the question becomes, what do I like failing at?

What about you? What’s your most fun fail?

Time’s a Wastin’

wastin' time

You know that feeling you get when you have a major creative breakthrough? That brain-giddy sensation that washes over you and makes you feel alive, excited, eager, itchy, and wonderfully inspired? Yeah, well, that’s not what this post is about.

It’s about the not-so-great, hunker-down rigor it takes to get to one of those ah ha moments. As Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find us working.”

Or Edison: “Genius: one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Or Einstein: “Work is the only thing that gives substance to life.”

And I’m sure countless other old (dead) dudes had lots to say about the value of hard work.

We don’t really know where breakthroughs come from, but we know we have to work really hard to have one. As Jonah Lehrer puts it in his book Imagine, “Before there can be a breakthrough, there has to be a block.”
Here’s Flash Rosenberg’s lovely video illustration inspired by Imagine **:

IMAGINE: How Creativity Works from Flash Rosenberg on Vimeo.

What can we do (besides really hard work) that will encourage inspiration to strike?

When I was in high school, I went to a summer camp where they taught us how to be bleeding-heart, liberal free-thinkers. I took a class there with this gangly, nerdy, French-speaking brainiac with floppy dark hair and endearing glasses. I think his name was Andy. I know many of the students were absolutely smitten with him. The only things I recall from his class were that we would spend hours looking at one short passage, we read something by Marguerite Duras, he explained “The Sublime” in a way that made it totally incomprehensible yet intriguing (rather sublime, actually), and he used the phrase (borrowed or his, I don’t know) “a profound waste of time.”

This phrase has stuck in my mind for the last decade or so. It’s such a human thing to waste time. You don’t see inefficiency very much in nature. But that very human tendency–to slack off, to daydream, to wander, to doodle–often gets badgered out of us. The irony is, wasting time makes us far more productive–at least in the realm of creativity.

Julia Cameron hints at this in The Artist’s Way (which, incidentally, I’ve never finished***). She recommends going on an artist date–an adventure you take by yourself to let your inner artist child be free…or some such hippie phrase. And while the aesthetic may be rather dated and reeking of New Age spirituality (and a hint of patchouli), the practice is a recipe for eureka moments. The artist date is not going to the museum or taking a daylong workshop on watercolor techniques. It’s a waste of time. It’s going to a flea market, or getting on the swings at the park, or coloring in a coloring book. It’s a big, fat, profound waste of time.

The big eureka! tends to happen when you’re doing something totally unrelated to whatever problem you’ve been working on. As the video above mentions, Archimedes had his moment in the bath. Isaac Newton, under an apple tree.

You want to get to ah ha? Do something more ha ha.

Or even uh uh, uh oh, or oh no.

**I came by this video friend Sally Day (thanks, Sal!). Don’t you think Flash Rosenberg is the greatest name? I so hope it’s real. Also, disclaimer: I have not read this book (but I would like to).

***Life lesson: Finishing books is overrated.