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the uses of failure

February 11, 2015

Failure does not create character. Failure does not reveal character. Failure makes folly of expectation.

Failure is the one reality that is, initially, unfudge-able. Sports are our culture’s parable vehicle: live and in schadenfreude. But there is redemptive reciprocity in athletic failure: a failure for one is success for the other: Seattle lost, but New England won.

For the rest of us most failures are most often unmitigated, creating psychic calluses or fantasies of retroactive rationalization. “I could not have gotten here if I had not experienced what happened to me.” is a fact of living in this space-time continuum. Every failure has a positive “if only” alternative, but its flip side, success, is always a better outcome in real time: with its downsides simply guess work that applies balm to injury.

There was no benefit to eating one too many Milano’s a day for 30 years to add 1/3 of myself to my mass. It was good I took 9 months to remove that – but everything I knew after that loss I already knew as I ate those Milano’s. Nothing learned, but the rectification was righteous, and done with intensity and purpose.

Jerry Rice is known by those who have never thought about football. He is the rare athlete that is viewed as unequalled in effectiveness and achievement in a sport. His acknowledged central motivation was failure.

He had few failures, but remembers each of them, remembered them every day as he caused many failures by those who played against him.

The only unfudged lesson of failure is that avoiding it is a good thing.

Everyone of us is an actor in an effort to get somewhere and do something: as Teddy Roosevelt said “there is no effort without error”. Whether the bar is just getting a paycheck or curing cancer humans set up unrelenting failure opportunities.

The platitudes of failure’s benefits only happen after failure has happened and what was desired did not happen. Every human experience has those benefits: achieving and getting wrecked have lessons for those willing to learn from them.

My parents had every measurable of success: career achievement, enough money, relative health. Like all of us, what they had was a mix of gift and grit.

But they, like all of us, had deep, abiding failures: an unhappy marriage, too much alcohol, and children that were often abiding mysteries to them. They did not learn from those failures, instead they built reasons for them that rendered them victims.

But I learned from their failures: its not that I don’t drink, don’t fight with my wife or fully understand my children. As with everyone else the lessons learned observing are oblique, useful, but do not replace lessons learned in my own experience.

Nothing is clearer than failure. Nothing reveals incapacity or let’s loose the dogs of fear better than screwing up. I screw up every day. Repeatedly, in “Ground Hog Day” redundancy, foibles become misjudgments or outright bone head plays.

But error is not fate: incapacity is not error, and the only option left to us is learning from each failure event in an effort to mitigate the next or understand its place.

Regret has no purpose save preventing even more regret later.

For me, that is the only use of failure.

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