Famed American inventor and engineer Charles F. Kettering said,
“It is not a disgrace to fail…Learn how to fail intelligently, for failing is one of the great arts in the world.”
I like the idea that failure can be viewed positively. After all, failure is unavoidable in life. Everyone we know has failed. We don’t have the choice not to fail. Failure is a part of what it means to be human.
So the issue is: how do I fail? How do I make an art of failure? What does it mean to “fail intelligently”?
Here’s one thought:
To fail unintelligently is to think that my failures disqualify me. It is to think: “Because I have failed, I am a failure.”
(When this kind of thinking tries to sneak in the back door of my brain, I like to remind myself—gently—“Geoffery, if you don’t mind, that’s kind of a dumb way to fail. You need to fail smarter.”)
To fail intelligently is to realize that my failures actually qualify me.
For example, in long-term relationships, it’s not failure to say, “I was wrong.” That actually qualifies us for relationship. It makes us more human, not less.
In his book Why Teach?, Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia, tells about a time he was introduced to speak. The one introducing him listed his accomplishments, degrees, books published, etc.
Edmundson stood up and said that he appreciated the introduction, but that every time he hears his resume described like that, he thinks of his “ghost resume”: the mistakes he’s made, the books he never finished, the bad ideas, etc.
Without the “ghost resume”, he said, the resume of accomplishments would not have been possible.
That’s a more intelligent way to fail. It turns failure into an art.
Henry David Thoreau said,
“To affect the quality of the day is the highest of the arts.”
Really? Aren’t you exaggerating just a bit, Henry?
Surely, the way I affect or enhance the quality of my days is not a higher art than playing a violin, painting a masterpiece, or writing a work of literature, is it?
On the other hand…
What if I did think of each day as a fresh, new canvas upon which I could create moments, using all of the palette of life at my disposal—my courage, creativity, compassion, sense of humor, and imagination.
What if, day by day, I cultivated the art of living a day—through success and failure, through ups and downs, through tears and laughter.
What if I practiced combining thoughts and words, attitudes and actions to make out of the nitty gritty of each day a kind of celebration and affirmation of this thing we call life.
And, what if I finally arrived at my last day, knowing that through all the messes and magnificence, I had somehow, one day at a time, made of my life a work of art.
Would that not qualify as at least among the highest of the arts?
Can you think of a higher art to practice?
What is the secret of happiness?
The Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky had a surprising response to that question:
“Man is unhappy because he doesn’t know he’s happy. That’s the only reason. The man who discovers that will become happy that very moment.”
Really? I’m not happy simply because I don’t know I’m happy? Is this some kind of naive, spiritual fast food? Some kind of spacey, psyche-yourself-up psycho-babble?
Coming from someone else, it might be. But listen to Dostoevsky’s story.
As a young man, he became involved in a political conflict; he was put in prison by political enemies and sentenced to death. Execution day came and he was led out in front of a firing squad, blindfolded. The soldiers raised their rifles…and at the very last moment, a rider on horseback approached with news from the Duke, staying the execution. Dostoevsky had been spared.
Dostoevsky credited that experience with opening his mind and inspiring him to write the works of fiction he devoted his life to.
One footnote: even as he wrote the above words about happiness, Dostoevsky was suffering from lifelong, debilitating bouts of epilepsy. So perhaps his thought is at least worth reflecting on.
Imagine that your life was taken away from you today—and then given back. Wouldn’t you then be happy to be here? Happy being who you are, where you are right now?
Wouldn’t this ordinary day, with whatever problems and frustrations and disappointments it may have, take on a heightened glow?
Wouldn’t you be happy in the wonder of just being alive? Being human? And being you?
Maybe Dostoevsky is on to something. Maybe happiness is not the end goal.
Maybe happiness is the place to begin.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
“No one knows what you can do, and you won’t know until you try.”
I like that. It’s a reminder that there’s always more to my story and more to your story and more to the story of everyone we meet—more than we know.
There’s always more to learn, more to do, more to grow, more to dare, more to contribute as a unique human being in this world.
It’s also a reminder that I only need to do what I can. If I just fulfill my life, who I am, what my potential is, that’s enough.
But how can we do it? How can we stay alive and growing and giving and challenging ourselves all the way to the last day?
Emerson also wrote:
“Our chief want in life is somebody who shall make us do what we can.”
But who will make me do that? Somewhere I read…
You and you alone can make you do what you can. You’ll have to be the coach, the player, and the fan.
Be your own coach. Be your own fan. Be the player. Be the hero of your story—no matter what happens, no matter how many failures or setbacks or disappointments.
Once you start playing these roles, the world better watch out.
It’s game on!