I am a connoisseur of failure. I appreciate failure all across its breadth and depth, from the most innocent gaffe to the catastrophe of shrieking magnificence. Success never tells me who I am. But when I’m crushed by an avalanche of failure, then I can see myself with frigid clarity.
Failure hurts like drinking molten lead. I don’t love it. You’d be crazy to love it. Some people may seek out failure, but nobody loves it. Success is a lot more laughs. You don’t get congratulatory cards for failing to graduate high school, for not making it to your wedding anniversary, or for not getting that big promotion. People tend not to appreciate failure just because it hurts, it’s unpopular, and it sucks.
I feel qualified to speak about failure because I’ve had a lot of it. I dropped out of college like a dope. I pursued a string of one-sided romantic relationships with women who couldn’t distinguish me from a mail box. I got married and then divorced in an impressive 18 months. I lost my business, went bankrupt, and lost my house along with nearly everything else. The year I turned 30 I made less money than I did the year I turned 17. I delivered stage performances that made the audience resemble lizards in a hard freeze. I failed in my efforts to help dozens of family and friends, resulting in everything from having to flush a radiator all the way up to death. Believe me, I know failure.
When people are asked how to fail, they often say something like, “You just screw up.” There’s a certain purity to this answer, but otherwise it’s stupid. In fact, I can fail in six ways. I can fail by setting my goals so obscenely low that even if I reach them I’m still considered a big failure. Or, I can set my goals so staggeringly high that God himself would have to come down and alter the laws of the universe for me to reach them. That guarantees failure for me.
Even if I get my goals right, I can still fail by not paying attention to the details. For example, my car may never reach its destination because it ran out of gas, due to me daydreaming about the Cherry Slushee I want to buy and never looking at the gauge. I can also fail by paying too much attention to the details and forgetting what I’m trying to accomplish. Maybe I drive flawlessly, but I end up at the fabric store, not a promising venue for iced cherry beverages.
Failure is scary, so it may seem odd when I promise you that being terrified of failure is a sure way to fail. Failure is kind of like a horse. If it senses you fear it, it will turn on you, buck you off, chase you, bite you on the arm, and shit on your rose bushes. If I fear failure, I won’t be able to think of anything except failing. Then failure becomes inevitable.
And the last way to fail is to embrace failure. That certainly sounds nuts. But embracing failure is when I try something that I think I can do—maybe—but that I’m not sure I can do. Sometimes I achieve things I didn’t expect. Sometimes I fall straight onto my ass from a moderately great height. But if I’m in the market for failure, I think this is the best buy.
Say that I have walked one of the six paths to failure, and now I have stumbled into a smelly, leech-infested thorn bush of non-success. Now I have the chance to see who I am and what I can learn. But a huge barrier squats between me and all this good knowledge. That barrier consists of four words, and when they come out of my mouth they sound like, “It wasn’t my fault.” Do not misunderstand me. I would adore it if none of my failures was my fault. I’d throw a party. I’ve often claimed that my failures were somebody else’s fault. I was dumb to do that, because when I claim that a failure was not my fault I’m also admitting that there’s not a damned thing I can do to prevent it from happening again. If I had no hand in it happening, then I can’t do anything to fix it. I’ve had to admit that my hideous failures were at least partly my fault, or else I could look forward to them happening again and again until I die.
I despise it when I fail, but I’ve learned to savor failure itself and the happy toys it brings to the failure party. Embracing failure can be particularly sweet, because I’m going out and doing it on purpose instead of stumbling into failure like a toddler in a room full of coffee tables. So I shoot for a little failure occasionally, because now and then it’s nice to see what I look like.