Why failure isn’t

Why failure isn't - Thorny flowersFailure isn’t what you think it is

Failure. So many of us go to great lengths to avoid it. But should we? What if one of the greatest secrets to success turns out to be how we think about and approach failure?

How we interpret failure

In her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck states that people tend to have one of two different mindsets or ways of interpreting the world. The first is what she calls a “fixed mindset” that assumes what we’ve got in terms of talent, intelligence or creative ability is all we’re ever going to have. Those with a fixed mindset judge success based on how they line up against some set standard. They feel better about themselves if they score well against that standard. They also pursue success or flee from any chance of failing in an effort to prove how innately talented or bright they are. If they get an “A,” that shows how smart they are. If they get a “C,” that affects their very identity as they now feel less smart just because of an average grade.

The alternative is a “growth mindset” that sees everything, including failure, as an opportunity for improvement. An “A” to this group means they studied hard (as opposed to feeling innately intelligent). A “C” means they should study harder next time. In comparing the two mindsets, Dweck writes:

 In one world — the world of fixed traits — success is about proving you’re smart or talented. Validating yourself. In the other — the world of changing qualities — it’s about stretching yourself to learn something new. Developing yourself.

In one world, failure is about having a setback. Getting a bad grade. Losing a tournament. Getting fired. Getting rejected. It means you’re not smart or talented. In the other world, failure is about not growing. Not reaching for the things you value. It means you’re not fulfilling your potential.

In one world, effort is a bad thing. It, like failure, means you’re not smart or talented. If you were, you wouldn’t need effort. In the other world, effort is what makes you smart or talented.

(Carol Dweck quoted in Maria Popova’s helpful summary of Dweck’s book)

In short, if you see the world through a fixed mindset, failure will always be bad. Growth mindset people, however, will see it as an indicator that you are improving. Two very different approaches to failure.

Other ways to think about failure

If you’re locked into a fixed mindset, I may not convince you failure can be a useful thing. But one way I’ve found to make failure seem less intimidating for anyone is this: redefine, or rather, reframe it.

Failure is a catchall term we use for anything that doesn’t go as planned. But as travelers know, sometimes the best journeys aren’t the ones we set out to take. What one person considers a failure, another sees as a boon. It all comes down to your perspective and that, in turn, is affected by terminology. So let’s explore some other labels or ways to consider failure.

Plot Twists

I love this comment in an email from entrepreneur Danny Iny of Mirasee.com:

…as long as you’re still breathing, it isn’t over. Failure is only failure if it happens in the last chapter – otherwise it’s a plot twist.

So true. If we see the story of our lives as long-form narrative, even some major setbacks are just road bumps that add interest. They are what build character, increase our resilience and make for more compelling lives.

Trying

If you try something and it doesn’t work out, you haven’t necessarily failed. You succeeded in trying. That’s a win. The biggest problem with avoiding failure is that you never try anything new. You take no risks. And if that happens, you never grow or frankly, truly live.

Improvement

How many times have you made a “mistake” only to find that the end result was better than planned? Would you call that a failure? No way. In the Renaissance, artists took the word pentimenti which originally meant regret or remorse and redefined it as meaning a reconsideration or change of thought. In this video from The Getty Museum, you can see how these “reconsiderations” play a big role in improving works of art.

Practice

In learning how to play a musical instrument, you’ll make multiple mistakes. That’s all a part of the process and why you practice. Those mistakes aren’t failures. They are essential steps in building your skills and capabilities.

Awareness

So-called failures make us aware for areas in which we need to improve. Without periodic failures, we can fall into the trap of thinking we’re successful at everything. That not only enhances arrogance, it decreases our desire and ability to learn new things. Again, like not trying or risking, the result is stagnation and complacency.

Experimentation

As Thomas Edison famously noted, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” He saw all that effort as a natural part of the process of eliminating unknown factors. This process includes experimentation (for exploring alternative approaches when you don’t know where to start) and testing to reduce unknown variables (for when you know where to start but not how to proceed). You’ll kiss a lot of frogs to find a prince, but that’s all part of the process.

Experience

I remember hearing the story of an executive who made a tremendous blunder costing his company something like $20 million. He walked into the CEO’s office and handed in his resignation. The CEO read the letter then tore it up saying, “I just spent $20 million to make you a better leader. Now go back and do your job.” That CEO understood one of the most valuable aspects of so-called failures: If we learn from the experience, we let it change us. We improve. We become wiser.

We learn far more from failures than successes because we pay better attention. And in so doing, we gain hard-won yet invaluable experience. As a result, we do better work not in spite of our failures, but because of them.

The necessity of failure

So I say to you, stop thinking about failure as something to avoid. Use one of the alternative terms above to name it for what it is, a positive, not a negative. A necessity, really, for any creative endeavor.

Consider this: You really can’t create without failure. There are no perfect first drafts. No unreworked canvases. No orchestral arrangements that spring to life in final form. Failure is baked into a process that is less about sparks of genius and more about plain old showing up and doing the work. As author Kevin Ashton notes in How to Fly a Horse, “Creation is a long journey where most turns are wrong and most ends are dead. The most important thing creators do is work. The most important thing they don’t do is quit.”

Neither should you.

Now go back and do your job.

Better.

 

If you haven’t already, check out the other entries in this series: 3 Things You Most Avoid May Be What You Most Need and Why Suffering May Be Better For You Than You Think

 

Why suffering may be better for you than you think

Suffering - tombstonesWhat do we do with suffering?

There are only two things which pierce the human heart. Beauty and affliction.

This quote from Simone Weil reflects the power of beauty and affliction to move us. Both cut through the superficiality of daily life to help us see what truly matters. Affliction, or suffering, comes in many forms. Some is forced upon us against our will: disease, injustice, oppression. Some is the result of our own mistakes or actions that went awry. Some just happens. The question isn’t why. Get in line to ask that one. Rather, what do we do with suffering?

Developing empathy

One benefit of suffering is that it forges empathy. Or it can. I know that when my wife went through chemotherapy for breast cancer, there were, in general, two types of patients in the chemo ward. The first — and fewest — were those who turned inward and became bitter. The second were those who, despite their own pain, reached out to others. They learned from their own struggle. As a result, they were better able to assist others going through their own dark seasons and hard places.

Suffering and learning

“He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.”

This quote from Aeschylus, the originator of literary tragedy, was famously used by Robert Kennedy after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It reveals another aspect of suffering: We cannot truly learn without it. We can gather information, facts and data. But deep learning — wisdom — only comes through applying that learning through experience. And experience is not always a gentle teacher. We remember best those moments that were most emotionally charged.

There’s a reason many writers, composers and other artists often create their greatest works during times of heartache. We are more in touch with our emotions and we understand the world in a far richer way out of our suffering than we do during periods of elation. It may not be fun. But great art isn’t about fun. It’s about truth. And for complex reasons, we are able to see what is true and what matters with greater clarity through our pain more than through our pleasure. Or put another way, we’re more motivated to express our deepest thoughts as a way of coming to grips with our suffering. Wisdom and art frequently come at a painful cost. And yet, in hindsight, we tend to find that the suffering was worth it.

The value of struggle

Suffering can foster empathy, increase wisdom and change how we view the world and others. But it can also help us to grow and overcome.

Think of the mountain climber or triathlon winner. Each endures tremendous suffering not because he or she enjoys it, but because the ultimate goal is worth the struggle. In fact, that end result is only attainable because of the struggle. Most of us aren’t the best in our fields because we’re not willing to pay the price. “No pain, no gain” is fine we think, for a middle school PE slogan. But in reality, we dislike the pain so much that we sacrifice the gain. Simply put, greatness doesn’t happen without struggle. And struggle means suffering of some kind.

The idea of “grit” or the ability to endure what is hard in order to achieve something greater has become increasingly popular as a concept these days. But we’re still reticent to practice it. Why?

Because in the US, we have made an idol of comfort and we protect that comfort at all costs. We prefer a numb existence over the effort and discomfort that comes with striving or trying something new. But as all good travelers know, you never grow or truly feel alive inside that fluffy, padded comfort zone. Sure, it may not feel pleasant to step outside it and enter the struggle. But like going to the gym for a hard workout, you don’t focus on what it feels like at the moment. You think about how good you’ll feel when you’re done.

Is it worth it?

Here’s the funny thing. From my own experience and from that of everyone I know who has endured great suffering, the vast majority say the same thing: It was worth it. To anyone who hasn’t been through such pain, that seems unimaginable. And yet, it’s a common response. The suffering has produced hard-earned rewards.

Whether it is increased empathy, wisdom or growth, you do discover — but only by going through it — that suffering has value. Again, you need not pursue affliction for its own sake. Just realize when it finds you that there is blessing on the other side, and rarely in the way you expect.

In the end, the hard won lessons are the ones we end up valuing most.

 

Read the overview on the 3 things you most avoid that may be what you most need if you haven’t already to understand better why suffering, failure and boredom may not be all you thought they were.

 

Creators and innovators: a meaningful trip – Part 2

Creators, innovators and a meaningful trip: San Clemente Pier

Creators and innovators: The announcement

“Congratulations! You have been selected as a finalist in the 2015 Creators and Innovators Upcycle Contest…” The words in the email to my son Connor began a series of events that led to one of the shortest, yet most meaningful trips I can remember.

Vissla, the surf clothing company sponsoring the competition, requested all the finalists ship their boards to an art gallery in San Clemente, CA where they would be put on display. In addition, Vissla invited all the finalists to attend the show opening at the gallery during which time the winners would be announced.

Vissla covered the cost of shipping the board and a hotel room for the night of the event. But Connor still had to fly down there and somehow make it to the event. I could tell this was a big deal to Connor. And since his 18th birthday was coming up right before the event, we decided to splurge.

Creators and innovators: The trip

Creators, innovators and meaningful travel: Nomad Hotel

Our room at the Nomad Hotel where Connor is going through his goodie bag from Vissla

Thus, in early October, Connor and I landed in San Diego, picked up a rental car, tooled around San Diego, had lunch out on Coronado Island, then leisurely made our way up the coast to San Clemente.

There, we checked in to the wonderful, funky, surf-themed Nomad Hotel that Vissla had arranged. On one of the beds was a bag filled with Vissla clothing and gear, all in Connor’s size. From there, we drove down to the San Clemente pier, looked around then arrived at the gallery as the opening was starting.

Creators and innovators: The event

I could write a book on the conversations that evening, but let me focus here simply on the highlights:

We met with the team from Vissla, all of whom were wonderful, welcoming and so glad we could be there.

Paul photographing Dane's board

Paul photographing Dane’s board

Vissla’s story itself is fascinating. Founded by Paul who was previously head of all the North and South American operations for Billabong, the company primarily produces surf clothing. But Paul, a former pro surfer, has a passion for “Creators and Innovators.” He honors not just those who practice the art of riding waves but also those who create the boards and equipment needed to do so.

This whole competition surprised everyone at Vissla in its popularity. Being the first time they’d done this, Vissla expected a few entries from locals. Instead, they had hundreds from all over the world.

What made the evening so fascinating was that wonderful phenomena that occurs when people of passion come together. The gallery was packed, spilling onto the sidewalk with a wide array of people, all connected by a love of the sport.

Gallery view

This is a view of the gallery from the sidewalk that ended up overflowing with people from the opening.

As we met and spoke with each of the finalists, it was clear that no one really cared who won. Everyone was just glad to be there and to share ideas with each other. Each contestant was genuinely interested in everyone else’s entry, from the functional board made of cardboard and Paper Mache (and covered in fiberglass) to the fins made from recycled plastic bottle caps melted and reformed into objects of beauty. By the end of the evening, Connor and the others were all figuring out ways to connect and work on new projects after the event.

Connor's board

Connor’s board in the longboard mode hanging in the gallery.

Eventually, a team of judges made their determinations and they announced the winners. First place went to Dane from Australia for a board that used the inner core from old doors but combined with foam and fiberglass in such a way as to be a work of art.

Second place went to a guy from Japan who made this amazing board from recycled Styrofoam cartons used in that country for transporting raw fish.

Third place went to…Connor! For that, he won one of Vissla’s cool wetsuits. Everyone agreed Connor had one of the most original ideas. They loved that even the wheels on his board were made from pallet material. They especially liked how detailed his user’s manual was. “Ikea could learn a thing or two from you,” was a common refrain that evening.

Later that evening, Vissla approached Connor and offered to buy his board for their corporate art collection. He eventually agreed to sell them the board. He plans on using the money to fund his start-up company making other kinds of long boards and surf t-shirt designs.

Creators and innovators: The takeaway

To me, a conversation I had with the board designer/shaper Donald Brinks epitomized the evening. Donnie and I got to talking about creativity and the design process and how everything is connected. How you learn something in a seemingly unrelated area, and it sparks an idea that would seem completely unconnected but makes total sense once you put the two together.

Creators, innovators and meaningful trips - Connor, Dane and Eric

Connor (left), Dane (center) and Eric from Vissla.

He commented on how you know a surfboard is right when you pick it up. I likened it to choosing a guitar. You can’t explain why, but you just know it is the right one by the way it feels or sounds or some other inexplicable factor. All the “data” you’ve spent a lifetime collecting suddenly connects in that moment and you know beyond doubt that this is the right one.

That’s the way this evening – this whole trip – felt. A vast array of interests and unlikely connections came together and worked in ways that amazed Connor and me because they were so unexpected and yet, so perfect.

In all, the entire trip was just over 24 hours. But it is one that will likely last a lifetime.

 

If you haven’t done so yet, you can read Part 1 here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why sunsets move us

Why sunsets move us - Cambria Sunset

Why do sunsets move us?

Just look at the number of photos of sunsets to know that as trite as they may seem, we still marvel at something that happens every 24 hours. In this second of a three-part series on sunsets, let’s look at seven reasons why sunsets move us.

Sunsets move us…literally.

We rarely appreciate sunsets from inside. We have to step outside – or even walk or drive a ways – to see them unobstructed. When I’m inside, I feel I’m missing out on the full effect and so I head for the nearest door to see – and feel – the sunset better. If you look at most photos (your own and others’) you’ll find they usually occur on vacation or at some other relaxed moment when we’re already outside. Since most of us live and work indoors, we have to be intentional to behold the sunset. And in moving physically to view them, we’re also moved emotionally by what we end up experiencing.

Sunsets make us aware of time.

In the first part of this series, I referred to the Celtic concept of “the time in between times,” the twilight hours where the boundaries between this world and the next seem thinner. Sunsets make us more aware of the mystery of time itself as we witness day transition into night. Too often, our lives feel like pure process, a non-stop blur of activities. We note time only as a resource that feels far too scarce. But with sunsets, we stop looking at our watches or cell phones because we feel behind. Instead, we’re aware of time passing in a different way; we appreciate time without resisting it. Odd how something as visible as a sunset can make us aware of something as invisible and powerful as time.

Sunsets are non-essential.

We don’t have to stop and watch that big orange orb drop from the sky each evening. But we do, though usually only when we’re not working or distracted with daily routines. “Squandering” our time on something so useless by all practical considerations gives the event even greater value. It reminds us that the most important moments of life aren’t the ones we measure but the ones we truly live.

Sunsets help us enter into night warmly.

Night is, in most cultures, associated with death. But sunsets help us to recognize that the nocturnal period is bookended with light. In the Christian faith, for example, death is not the end of the story. We need not fear what the night brings. Sunsets remind us of that and make the coming of night just a bit more welcoming.

Sunsets are real.

We can’t manufacture them (though we can mimic them). We’re surrounded by so much superficial beauty that when we encounter the real thing, we get lost in awe even though we may have seen thousands of sunsets before in our lifetime. Never underestimate the power of authentic beauty to touch our souls, even in something as cliché as a sunset.

Sunsets involve waiting.

I won’t begin to count the ways my impatience manifests itself each day. Given how little I like to wait, why will I take long stretches of time to stare at an object that at any other time of day I barely notice? I think there’s something freeing about waiting in situations where we’re not aware we’re waiting. We learn to be present…and learn that waiting is possible. We discover the anticipation that comes with waiting enhances the experience and makes us appreciate the experience even more. Sunsets reward our waiting with more than just a show of color and light.

Sunsets are beautiful.

I’ve saved this obvious statement for last. But why are they beautiful? First, there are all those colors. Warm colors, like a welcoming fire on a cold night, the color of home and hearth and even romance. Second, sunsets are a changing, even surprising beauty. Like snowflakes, they are never the same twice. Third, when clouds are involved, we experience both color and a kind of texture that even the best images can’t replicate. Sunsets are not just multi-sensory (we feel them as much as we see them). They are multi-dimensional and in the best cases, envelop us in their beauty.

That’s my take on why sunsets move us. How about you? Why do you value a beautiful sunset?

And be sure to come back next time when we explore some simple ways to get your best photo ever of a sunset.

 

 

Hair fairies and how it works

Chemo Gifts - Cancer is a WordOn Thursday evening, some friends of mine were asking about Chemo Gifts and how this whole thing works. They wondered how they could be more involved. I told them of having distributed most of the bags of encouraging quotes and the cotton gloves to the chemo treatment centers where my wife had been.

When it came to how they could help, I mentioned that life has a way of producing opportunities. I’ve had some friends over the last month who have friends of theirs or family members with cancer. And so I reach out and provide them with these Chemo Gifts as well. I said I’d continue to do that as needs arise but we all agreed we’d be on the lookout for other ways we could each use our own interests and talents to help those around us.

Then, two days later, out of the blue I get this email from an old college friend of mine, Carole:

“Well, I launched a kickstarter this week to help fund a project that is near and dear to my heart.  I left teaching to care for a former little preschool student of mine that got diagnosed with leukemia.  As we stepped onto this journey together,  her single mom wondered what was out there to help make so much of the scary business of getting her daughter Eva healthy again a little less scary.  She came up empty handed.  She wanted a story about dealing with hair loss and couldn’t find one.  So, I wrote one.  Now we have a brilliant illustrator burning the midnight oil to finish the illustrations.  That is what the kickstarter is for.  If we go over our goal, we can print the first run of this story and hand them to the kids affected by cancer treatment for free.  It is our promise to give these to families at no cost ever to them.”

Here’s the Kickstarter link if you’d like to help out. Even if you don’t want to donate, check out the video about Carole’s story regarding Eva and the hair fairies:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/738775374/the-legend-of-the-hair-fairies

The wonder of this is not just the timing, but how Carole is doing exactly what we were discussing: using her creative abilities to do something meaningful and useful for someone else.

Losing hair due to chemo seems, if you haven’t been through it, like a minor issue. After all, you’re battling for your life. Why worry about superficials like your hair? Except it isn’t just superficial. Your hair is part of you. Part of your identity. And to have it gone almost overnight can be devastating. Plus it signals to the world that you have cancer: It’s the first visual cue to others of your disease. And for both adults and little kids losing your hair can be scary, like an amputation, a part of yourself now detached.

We can explain the scientific reasons for losing your hair to chemo, but more comforting — more helpful — is the power of story. That’s what Carole has done. And as a result of her using a passion for writing for a little girl in need, she not only is touching the lives of Eva and her mother, but all the others who are now involved in this project.

That’s how it works.