The Value of Failure — BIG Failure

This might sound crazy, but I have realized the power of failure. BIG failure. By “big,” I mean failing at something that matters a lot to me.

Who in their right mind wants to fail? Most of us would say we hate failure and really want to succeed.

Nothing wrong with that! The problem comes when we are so afraid of failure that we never really try. Either we go for goals that don’t matter all that much to us, or we go for the things we really want but we hold back from putting forth our full effort. This stance feels “safe” to our reptilian brains.

I spent my whole life, over 50 years, saying I was going to write a book. Finally, I did. It was terrifying. I got a lot of other projects done, and a really clean house, in the course of “avoiding writing.” But the book got done, and it turned out to be good! Then I was still afraid of failure so I did a half-baked job of marketing it. But, people are buying it! (That book is the nonfiction work DEEP GREEN, the book that inspired me to start this blog.)

Truthfully, if I had been any good at waiting tables all those years ago (I was not), I might never have gotten around to writing a book, or any of the other things I have tried in my adult life. Many of the things I’ve tried, I have failed at. Then again … failure is in the mind.

By the way, I have great admiration and respect for the profession of waiting tables. I consider it a ministry (as just about any other profession can be). But, I’m no darn good at it, which is probably a good thing in my case because I was just using it as a pipeline to steady money. And using it to hide out from the work I felt called to do.

This week I did what might have been the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, and the undone thing that mattered most to me: I posted a piece of fiction writing in the public eye. Then something interesting happened: I realized that I did not care if people thought it was awful! I did not even care if it was actually awful! I realized that I still wanted to keep up the project! For a person who has done a lot of quitting and hanging-back in her life, this was big.

I am surrounded by people who are doing huge things in the world, making a major difference. Restoring landscapes on a large scale; making big public art; reducing single-use plastics on a regional level; making eco motivational speeches to audiences of thousands or millions. It’s very humbling. But interestingly enough, as I voluntarily experienced the crushing sense of feeling “less than” these people in terms of effectiveness, I started to get a spark of renewed energy for my own efforts. And I started to take joy in the efforts themselves instead of measuring how “successful” I was being.

My highest goal, the one that matters most to my earthly self, is to help ensure the survival of human life on this planet, and co-create a peaceful enlightened civilization. It’s something I will never quit.

But, another thing that matters almost as much to me is writing — not just as a vehicle for the above goal, but as a thing in and of itself. Overcoming procrastination, resistance, raw fear, the depth of the abyss … it feels as epic to me as I imagine that surfing must feel. Words, being able to transmit feeling in words — is so huge to me. Words are a low-bandwidth medium of transmission that can survive for millennia and maybe even cross galaxies.

Whatever your big thing is, I encourage you to tackle it! (By the way, one person’s small thing is another person’s big thing, so don’t think you have to make a grand splash on a fancy stage for your efforts to matter.)

In the course of tackling lower-stakes goals and still failing at them, I’ve found that a string of mediocre failures can be like death by a thousand paper cuts. Might as well go for the big enchilada, I say!

I have more to say about this topic but am going to let it percolate for a bit.

Update: It struck me that failure is like a good set of pruning shears. If I fail at something and then quit, that “something” must not have been very important after all. Or else, that “something” was an ineffective action toward an important goal. Either way, it’s a branch that needed pruning! All the better to focus on effective efforts related to things that truly matter to me.