Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Guise of Failure

Icarus by Matisse

Proverbs 15:31 The ear that hearkeneth to the reproof of life abideth among the wise

I started out my career with lots of success. I didn't know I couldn't do certain things and so I did them. Naivety has its benefits. I was flying high discovering my own power, reveling in it.

Then I moved and took a new job and like Icarus, came tumbling down to earth, wings crumpled beneath me. When I explained my job upset to my father he replied, "It was about time you landed on your ass, you were getting entirely too smug." Now this was quintessentially my father, so much so that I included it in my eulogy at his funeral. I am aware that to many it might sound harsh, but in an odd way it gave me comfort. There was an acceptance in it of the role of failure, a source of learning and part of the natural rhythm of life.

I've been thinking about it lately because I am charged with co-leading a session of the Jewish Artist's Lab on our theme of wisdom. It is a broad expanse, any aspect of wisdom we choose.  It occurred to me that failure plays an important role in finding wisdom and so we've chosen it as our topic. My co-lead offered the phrase "the bankruptcy of pre-conceived notions" which I quite like. I think it captures the essence of what we hope to communicate.

The inquiry begins with the question of how we define both success and failure. The two seem interrelated with each the mirror image of the other. Both involve objectives that we either meet or fail to meet. When we meet them we get kudos and self confidence, but the more interesting question is what happens if we don't meet them, if we fail. Many of us live in fear of failure and yet anyone who creates knows that risk of failure is part of the process of creation. Even in my one-time profession of banking we used to say we weren't taking enough risk if we never had a bad loan. How do we know our limits if we don't test them? Perhaps Icarus is indeed an apt metaphor in his efforts to approach the sun.

When we do fail, we get to choose how we respond. Have you ever tripped on the street and fallen? Some of us quickly jump to our feet and move on, uneasy with perceived vulnerability. Others look for the banana peel on which to affix blame. Some look around to assess how large the audience to their embarrassing moment. There are a variety of responses to those indelible moments we'd prefer to forget. Most involve discomfort that grows with the size and significance of the audience. I know I had much less fear of failure when I had less to lose.

If failure represents an unsuccessful effort to meet an objective, we have a few factors to consider. Was it the wrong objective for us at this time? The "for us at this time" is an important part of this statement. Sometimes we're just not ready. Oops, we forgot to add the heat resistance to our wings. Sometimes it is a fine objective, for somebody else. Perhaps the objective is perfectly appropriate, but our means were not. We need to consider another approach. Maybe our pre-conceived notions are indeed bankrupt and we need to release them and start anew, acknowledge those outworn methods or objectives and take a fresh look. If we go through these considerations we often discover that failure is the Petri dish of change. We make changes out of discomfort. When we are comfortable most of us settle in for the ride. Chart your "failures" and you will likely see that they led you into new directions that shaped your future. The same is true of artistic "failures" that often prove interesting and can take us off in new and serendipitous directions.

There is yet another side to failure, one my father touched on in his statement. Humility.  If all we know is success, our compassion for others is often sadly lacking.  It is by playing out all sides of life's equations that we begin to understand that the world is not black and white, not simplistically composed of winners and losers as some politicians might have you believe. Instead it offers us challenges and opportunities that refine us as people to the extent we are willing to fully embrace them.  Sometimes those opportunities come in the guise of failure. 

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