Falling Up: The True Nature of Failure
Setbacks often set you up for life-enhancing lessons. Don't pre-judge them.
Posted Nov 25, 2019
When I was graduated from journalism school, rather than heading back home to New York and ending up another college graduate driving a taxicab or working for an exterminating company, I headed for the Midwest, to Cincinnati, Ohio, which seemed like the far reaches of the galaxy. I had a week to drive out there and get a place to live before punching in Monday morning at a job on a magazine.
I pulled into downtown Cincinnati on a mid-October day when the final game of the 1976 World Series was being played, during which the Cincinnati Reds beat the New York Yankees. I parked my car, with its conspicuous New York license plates, in front of a restaurant and went in for a late lunch. When the game let out and the streets filled up with 55,000 exhuberant Reds fans, some loose cog from the Big Red Machine decided it would be a testament to his regional pride to slash the two back tires of my car and write in red lipstick on the windshield, “When you’re hot, you’re Reds hot!”
It not only set me back financially but emotionally. Was this an omen? Was it a mistake coming out here?
My decision to cross the River Jordan and move to Ohio had felt like a calling, and landing a job there like a confirmation. So I naturally expected all the requisite blessings. Since I was meant to go, I assumed I was also meant to succeed. But my unexpected run-in with the locals literally and symbolically took the air out of my tires.
In taking any risk, though you may have your hands firmly on the wishbone, there's an even chance you’ll encounter setbacks, which most people refer to as failures. But if you see life as an experiment in which there are no failures (or even successes) but only results, your interpretation of those results will determine how successful you feel. For instance, if you pitch an idea to someone, and it’s rejected, you can either conclude “wrong person” or “lousy idea.” But there is a big difference!
Someone once asked Albert Einstein which question, among all his inquiries into the mysteries of the universe, is the most important question to ask? His response: “Is the universe a friendly place or not?” How you interpret the results of your own life—and thus how that life unfolds—is largely a function of how you answer Einstein’s question.
Had I answered no, I might have reconsidered my decision to move to Ohio, or concluded “lousy idea.” But I said yes, and the incident became an example of what the mythologist Joseph Campbell described as the task of the hero/ine learning the rules of the unknown land into which he or she has stepped. (In this case, that one does not park a car with New York license plates anywhere near the Coliseum during a World Series game between the Cincinnati Reds and the New York Yankees.)
Campbell calls these experiences “directive crises” and Gail Sheehy (author of Passages) refers to them as “falling up.” They're setbacks that set you up for ultimately life-enhancing lessons: course corrections, insights, a better grip on your strengths and weaknesses, even valuable delays. So they mustn't be impulsively pre-judged. As in a Dickens novel, accidental encounters and happenstances often turn out to be formative events, but you have no idea at the time; only in retrospect. So you must ask of setbacks, “What are you trying to tell me?” and “Where is my life attempting to go?” and “How might this be a plot twist I won’t understand for another 200 pages?”
Risk-taking will also be considerably more palatable if you approach it with a Grand Scheme in mind. Take it for granted that your life has meaning and purpose. A sense of meaning can carry you through the most incredible hardship. Understand that whatever the outcome, it will contain a quality of rightness that will be as difficult to explain as to deny.
It's unfortunate that so many of us wear garlic wreaths around our necks trying to ward off the presumed evils of failure—a word that should always come with quotation marks around it. An advertising executive of my acquaintance once described a curious phenomenon that's helped change my own attitude toward “failure.” After the agency’s people take sales or productivity seminars, he said, business actually falls off for a month or two afterward, and he finally figured out what was happening:
In picking up new ideas and techniques that challenge your old habits, you venture beyond the approaches that previously worked. But the new behaviors don’t come naturally at first, and before they become second-nature the extra effort shows up as a dip in performance. In the long run, however, the new skills make you more productive, and you begin to experience the alchemical conversion of risk to reward.
The commitment to stretching beyond your comfort zone often demands the willingness to take one step backward in order to take two steps forward, and it's a peculiarity of successful people that they’re able to tolerate sometimes extended periods of uncertainty and still hang on to their faith. They also tend to make room among their anticipations for the unexpected. They make room to fail. They have some money in the bank to fall back on, and some people. They give a nod to the vagaries of Murphy’s Law. And risky propositions need a few fail-safes, just as cliff-dwelling birds lay pear-shaped eggs so that when they roll they do so in circles and not over cliffs.
For most of us, the reasons we’re so cautious and risk-averse have long since been plowed under by time and forgetfulness. How we each approach risk, interpret failure, and answer Einstein’s question, however, is greatly determined by the behavior that was modelled for us while we were growing up: what we learned about taking risks and making change; about loss and failure and security; and whether our fledgling attempts to explore life were cherished or not. In order to move forward, we may have to take a step or two backward and remember or re-live those experiences, see them for what they were, see our parents for the flawed and uncertain people they were, and make some kind of rough peace with how it was.
Family, though, is only one among many institutions—education, religion, government, law—that school us in continuity rather than change. Evolution itself also hardwired us to avoid risks, seek security, transform novelty quickly into habit, and jump at the slightest sound. In a manner of speaking, we all have our fight-or-flight buttons stuck in the “on” position. But evolution is also constantly creating. “Whatever there be of progress in life,” Henry Miller once wrote, “comes not through adaptation, but through daring. The whole logic of the universe is contained in daring, in creating from the flimsiest, slenderest support.”
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