The Art of Failure: The Good in Doing Things Badly

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Remember the Michael Jordan commercial where he recounts how many buzzer-beaters he’s missed, how many games he’s lost, and the other failures in his career? I love that. Because of the inspiration? Nosir. Because I’m not a Michael Jordan fan and grew up despising the bandwagoneering of suddenly-now-Bulls-fans because of the dunking guy with the tongue out who gets foul calls when people make eye-contact with him? Si senor. I am a bitter, emotionally crippled, hermit of a man.

Actually, though I don’t give a fig about the Bulls and never was an MJ fan, I do see the value of such a commercial. It’s kind of brilliant. The point being that those whom we all see as Incredible Successes, were not always and are not always so.

Failure is essential to success. Stick that on a poster with a mountain, or a hang glider, and bam. Maybe the hang glider is crashing into the mountain. Yes, that’s it.

J.K. Rowling was rejected 8 million times by several billion publishers before one took a risk on her. (Note: Slight hyperbole.) (Note the second: Did you see where there was hyperbole within hyperbole there?)

Trillions of writers have similar stories, many have tales of wallpapering their walls with rejection letters. Then, later, they all become gazillionaires. I imagine there’s a lot of slow rolling down of the window of the mercedes to peer at the editor who rejected their work. Then the slow removal of expensive sun-glasses followed by the ironic smile…finally, the energetic peel-out.

(Note the third: I’m frightfully sorry I keep using these massive numbers. I just feel the need to keep using higher and higher figures until they lose all meaning. Vote for me next election. I’d fit right in the Gubment.)

Some guy in this Room of Rabbits (who is clueless about sports) encouraged me to blog about the story of my stories. That is, to talk about what I am “going through” as I give fiction writing the ole’ college try. I am reluctant to bore you to death with details, but I will say that some of the best advice I’ve been given has had to do with failure.

“Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” G.K. Chesterton

I take that to mean that there is a season for doing a thing badly before we ever do anything well, and that I must, as a writer, not expect my early efforts to be anything close to perfect.

There are going to be lots of missed buzzer-beaters and, perhaps more appropriately, a lot of games I’m not even going to get in to play at all. But sittin’-the-bench is time to notice things. Practice is time to…um…practice. Time to get better.

So, here’s to bad writing and being willing to fail. Even these are gifts. Cheers!


21 Comments

  1. Karisa

    Unfortunately, I won an short story contest in 5th grade. I distinctly remember using the word “salami” and being pretty proud of that. There was a big school assembly and I was given a certificate and a giant dictionary and everyone applauded. It spoiled me. I have never since been able to revisit that lofty peak of 10-year-old success. No; better to fail at the beginning and then see gradual progress. Success is that much sweeter with all the failures that precede it.

    Well written, Sam. And the “practice” link led to much laughter.

  2. Amy

    Amen a thousand times! This is an important principle of constructivist learning and one I hope always to better embrace in my life. Not just my own failures in art, but in life and in the lives of others. Failure is how we learn, we must figure out how to do it better. 🙂 When I was a literacy coach I’d tell my students we actually view failure as a positive learning event…a necessary step in the journey.

  3. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Sam, this same principle operates in music. Unless we give ourselves permission to crash and burn during a solo, there will be tension in the body in an attempt to over steer. This, of course, often results in crashing and burning. To give ourselves permission to make mistakes is to give ourselves the opportunity to be at least occasionally brilliant.

    Developing speed is the same. I used to think I could develop speed by playing slow with a drum machine and then speeding it up click by click until I was playing fast. It really didn’t work for me. What does work is warming up and then spending some of my practice time with the drum machine going faster than I can. Then I do short bursts of notes, or patterns, over and over until I can do them cleanly. The mistakes as I do this are part of the learning process.

    The fear of looking bad (fear of man) is a crippling thing.

    Thanks for this post. I’m teaching at a banjo camp this Saturday and you just gave me more to talk about.

  4. Aaron Roughton

    Thinking about failure as a gift makes my teeth hurt. Whenever I see someone who told me I would amount to something great someday, I slowly roll down the window of my 13 year old car. (But not the driver’s side window. It doesn’t work. I roll down the rear window and lean my seat way back so if I crane my neck I can see the person.) Then I look over the top of my prescription sunglasses and squint so I can still see the person. I smile, thinking how great it is that I’ve avoided any failure in my life by playing it safe, and how wrong they were about me amounting to anything. Mediocrity. In your FACE, person who believed in me.

  5. Aaron Roughton

    By the way, is that the same kid who was smoking in that other picture? He’s probably crying because his mom is making him switch to low tar cigarettes.

  6. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Aaron,

    My daughter’s stuffed bear is SAFETY bear. He talks constantly at bedtime to my kids about being safe and not going outside (wasps, potholes, mice, dogs), and checking the safety standards of the trampoline manufacturer on the internet, and not having any friends because, of course, one might be hurt by friends. He says, “Of course, this means I don’t really have adventures or fun with friends, or running in the park, but who needs all that? I just want to be comfortable and – safe. I don’t need anything else.” He sits and stares off into the distance for awhile, then sighs and slumps.

  7. JacobT

    I appreciate the encouragement to continue to do things poorly in hopes of one day not.

    Also, from a Bad Boys era Pistons fan, I most appreciate your disdain for #23.

  8. Peter B

    You see? If it weren’t for the Rabbit Room, I would most likely never encounter the phrase “banjo camp” in casual conversation. Or anywhere.

    SD, should that be hypobole within hyperbole? Is that even a word? Am I failing adequately at composition?

    Karisa: your problem is not success, but salami. It’s just too good. You can’t top that kind of experience.

    But yeah, those of us who were hailed as brilliant for something or other in our childhood… we have issues. Thankfully, God is merciful in remaking us.

    In other wonderings: Will there be a non-sports-fan support group at Hutchmoot? Can I join via satellite? If I were there in person, would I ever shut up?

  9. Dan K

    Nice post.
    I love Chesterton. This is from “What’s Wrong with the World.” (I had to look up the source).

    I think the quote originally goes back to the love of things rather than being paralized by the fear of a poor outcome (doing it badly). It’s from a section specifically regarding education for women as a “new idea” – but keep in mind the overall point. Children will go in a flash from painting to singing to gardening to running. They do these purely for LOVE & enjoyment and not an outcome. Don’t squash that and don’t lose that for yourself.

  10. S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    Karissa –are you just padding your resume, or did you really win that contest? I mean, you do not write like a fifth grader. Are you smarter than a…nevermind.

    Amy –Cool. I guess we all aim for success, but should learn from inevitable failure. Thanks!

    Loren –I like that.

    Ron –I think I hear a lot of this kind of thing from you and it encourages me. Your quotations shared from Art and Fear have been gold in color. That bear is amazing. I’m surprised it’s not mandated by the Gubment. Our children are, wait for it…too small to fail.

    Aaron –as usual, you win. What else can I say? Oh, that kid will never quit smoking because his momma didn’t raise no quitter.

    JacobT –I was a big Knicks fan, so I relish the image of John Starks jamming on Jordan, etc. But block out everything else, including the untold millions of phantom fouls.

    PeterB –You are hilarious when I understand what you’re talking about and, I assume, when I don’t. All ya’ll non-sporties will make up the clear governing majority at Hutchmoot, so it is WE, the sporties, who need representation. Who’s with me? Oh, I’m alone.

    DanK –are you in that group I have never heard a note of called RelientK? Also, I am sorry to hear that I have blown it on the context from ole’ GKC. THIS is an example of failure. Yes! Well, I snagged the quote from another chap, so I was using it the way he did. It was Eve’s fault. I hate it when people do that. People like me. Thanks for the context.

    I can’t read.

  11. DanR

    S.D. -“What! You too? I thought I was the only one.”
    (speaking of quoting out of context)

  12. Elisabeth

    This seems to be the theme of my week… John Maxwell spoke at our church on Sunday and preached about learning from failure, based on his experience last year of being arrested at an airport for carrying a loaded gun. Seems Someone is either preparing me or making a point. Hmm.

    New to the blog & looks wonderful. Thanks for creating!

  13. Tony Heringer

    John C. Maxwell wrote a book many years back on this topic. Never read the book but I always loved the idea conveyed in the title: “Failing Forward” In the world of sports, the athlete who never fails is not in the game very long, if at all. “The Great One”, Wayne Gretzky once said “You miss 100 percent of every shot you don’t take.”

    Failure, except in the movie Apollo 13 (documenting the mission dubbed “successful failure”) is not only an option it is the bigger part of life and the wisdom we glean from it.

    As for GKC he’s a master of pith. This is the second time today I’ve seen a GKC quote posted on the web. In context or not, he is always pithy. That’s a fun word to say and type. 🙂

  14. Dan K

    Sorry if I sounded like the GKC keeper of quotes and a contextual snob. Actually SD filled the idea pretty well. Enjoy & try things; be a kid.

    In the past 6 months I’ve become a huge GKC fan & by far the coolest thing is the vast volume of clever quotes, and for how great they are he always has 2-3 solid & thoughtful paragraphs of proving a point and the pithy quote is actually the knockout punch.

  15. S. D. Smith

    @sdsmith

    Dan R –I’m lovin’ it.

    Elisabeth –Welcome. So glad you are here. Believe me, most posts are MUCH better than this!

    Tony –Speaking of pithy, have you heard the one about the two Rabbits?

    Dan K –You must fulfill the role of GKC Keeper of Context. Don’t let us down. I can’t read, so it’s up to you. These other clowns are totally unreliable.

    SD –Don’t change. Stay the same. Write me from college. You’re a good athlete.

  16. Steve B.

    Ron, I too was thinking about music when I read this. Thanks for your response. Coming from a perfessional musician it makes this amatuer mandolin player feel better about my mistakes and hopefully will help me the next time I pass on a break at a jam. You hit the nail on the head with your statement, “The fear of looking bad (fear of man) is a crippling thing.”

    A friend of mine always says that he is too old to worry about what other people think of his playing. I will be 40 this year, so hopefully that is old enough to adopt his way of thinking.

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