I considered calling this post Falling Short, to soften the blow. But instead decided to go balls to the wall with what I really mean. Failure. How can I stop being afraid of it if I can’t even stop being afraid to say it?

Dylan said, “There’s no success like failure, and failure’s no success at all.” Whatever that means. But I like the sound of it. I feel there is a potential there that I, with my paralytic fear of failure, can’t quite grasp. My dad says your successes can’t exceed 25% of your failures, so get out there and fuck up! (paraphrased) That’s a little more straight forward.

failed to plant succession, harvested too much at once, washed when i shouldn't have, stored wet in the fridge=2 gallons of rotten salad greens

Erica from NW Edibles recently outed the naked, cold fact that they are spending $2,000 to have a chicken coop built for them. Wow, brave girl. I would have hidden that one under my bed for sure. In a locked box. That’s what they invented lies for, Erica.

I’m not mentioning Erica because I think their $2,000 chicken coop represents failure. Please don’t misunderstand! It’s dangerous ground we tread here. But she lays bare her feelings of falling short of that shiny Urban Homesteader Ideal, and I know just what she means. I know how life can lead you on a crazy circuitous path, which cannot be traveled backwards, and then deposit you *BAM* where you least expected to end up. Picking yourself up, dusting off and finding a way to keep on is the stuff of saints as far as I’m concerned. Or beetles.

Myself, when fear of failure or the associated guilt of transgression hits, I can sometimes be completely incapacitated. I’ve abandoned many a project when the first failures start rolling in, or even just because failure lurked around the next bend. And that ain’t no good, no how.

Maybe it’s just me. One of my little Issues. But I’ve been fascinated by my crippling fear of failure and it’s many reprecussions throughout my life.

Long, loooong ago, when I worked as a “handler” for a dog musher back in Alaska, it was my job to run the dogs every day. Riding a dog sled, particularly on a low snow winter like that one was, is a skill that took me months to even get an edge on. I had a little epiphany on one of the many occasions that I was being dragged behind the tipped over sled (never, never let go of the sled), face down over the fast moving snow. I realized that when the sled went round a corner, I needed to lean in to the curve. But instead my fear of the speed made me lean outward, in a visceral desire to abandon the sled. Leaning out on a curve tips the sled over. Simple physics.

I don’t believe, as some do, that your thoughts somehow energistically manifest into your life to create what you want or fear. But my sled epiphany made me see how fear drives me to act in a certain way, a fearful way, that sometimes causes the very thing I fear to happen. It’s not magic, it’s logic. With a heavy dose of irony.

i loved this lemon tree. then i forgot to water it. for several months. now it's dying, covered with tiny lemons, and dying. damn me!

In addition to the negative of sabotaging our efforts, there’s a big, important positive to failure. Nothing is more instructive. Imagine if you refused to let your kid play with pen and paper until they could write a perfect ‘A.’ Obviously kids have to practice a lot before they learn to write, and ‘practice’ means fucking around with a pen and paper. Each distinct failure teaches us so many, many things that simple success can never offer.

The trick to abolishing our fear of failure and embracing it instead as our benificent teacher (a trick that I have failed to learn as of yet) is not to let our every action define us. Isn’t that what I strive to teach my kids? You may do a mean thing to a friend, that doesn’t make you a mean person. You may fail to consume all the cases of marmalade you so eagerly sliced, cooked and canned last year and instead have to dump them down the drain to free the jars for other purposes (ahem) but that does not mean you are a failure.

can't waste the jars too by keeping them tied up for years...

Another point which must be sharpened is that a lot of what we perceive as “failure” is actually only failure to live up to an impossible fantasy of perfection. Take Erica and her coop. Some part of her might feel that she has failed to be the uber-cool urban homesteader who does everything herself on a shoestring budget. But in fact, all she has done is prioritize her time. There’s a limited quantity of it, don’t you know.

Actually you might not know. I’m not sure whether I really do. The capitalist system and our unleashed advertising industry has worked very hard to make us believe that there are no such limits. This is really a whole post of it’s own that has lay dormant in my mind for months. I believe it affects every aspect of our lives and I have much too much to say about it. But, relevant to this subject, they saturate us with the unspoken premise that there are no limits, no need to choose priorities, you can have it all! (just sign here).

There follows a seemingly reasonable equation: If ‘all’ is possible, and I can’t achieve ‘all,’ I failed.

I assure you, it’s the equation that’s at fault!

Even though I understand this well with my intellect, that deeper core of my brain that advertising plugs straight into still Believes. And suffers the all the guilt, shame, and fear.

It’s really a lot of what this blog has ended up being about for me. Confronting the impossible expectations we are suffused with. Attempting to slowly erase the 33 years (and counting) of culture telling me I can and should have it all. Teasing out the important bits from the hectic hairball of modern life, making my priorities, and fighting back the scaly beasts of disillusionment, guilt and failure.

Back to the cave with you, foul creatures!

19 thoughts on “Failure

  1. Beloved Boo (once again),

    If I could be there to give you a hug, I would. If I could be there to show you a photo of me hanging (literally) from the rafters after a night of full-bore indiscretion (not a good image I know) I would. And why? Cause A) I love outing myself so that no one, no one, no one, will ever take my life history as being neat and B) Cause messiness and failure is part of the journey.

    Holy crap girl. What you think? Even those who look like they got their shit together don’t. Or, if they do, it took a good measure of facing off with the folly of ego, self righteousness and plan old fashion head-up-the-ass-ism.

    We are all broken creatures trying to find truth in a system that suggests success as some consequence of good choices. That’s a lie. We have all had a cookie dangled in front of our faces — this life, safe life, good life if you make the right choices. Ha.

    Fact is, we are all round and soft spirits in a linear and harsh world and it can (and has) made life way confusing. We are all working to undo that capitalist narrative (and you are right to intuit a huge thorn there). We are all banging our heads against that system with some of us are more willing to admit it. The gig is up though.

    So when you tell us that you tossed the marmalade down the sink you open a hole in everyone else’s precious stories so they, too, can come out and say….What the hell is this life really about? How do we live up in here? And then we get to talk for real like.

    Yes, there is beauty. Lots of it. But I’m here to tell you there is lots and lots of failure. I’m pushing 60 and there is still a whole lot of failure out there, in here, and all around. But like Ram Dass says….”You never get rid of your demons you just invite them in for tea.” Good one that. Too bad you got rid of your marmalade cause I hear demons like it with a spot of toast.

    So breathe and accept the brokeness. You will never outrun it. And ignore Dylan. He is a wordsmith but can be full of shit like the rest of us. Besides, ever since he did that Victoria Secret ad I have had a few well chosen words for him. Like…..yeah you don’t want to be a cultural icon but do you have to be a sell out to prove it? But then we go way back. I’ve had a crush on him since I was 15 and used to think he was actually saying something important. Too bad for him I’m turning my gaze to Leonard Cohen – a wordsmith you can still trust.

    1. I should have known.
      My top three songwriters: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Ani DiFranco.
      I know Dylans full of shit, but my can he turn a phrase.

  2. Ah, sweet, sweet, nasty arsed failure.

    I bought a fucking hair straightener today. It came in the pack with a hair dryer. Cos I didn’t have a hair dryer. I don’t know what to do with either of them.

    Enuf said?….

    (Harriet, if you want a sweet man to listen to, may I suggest Xavier Rudd? He’s a gentle, sweet man, with many musical talents. Google, youtube-ify, and enjoy.)

  3. Loved your failures! Not so that I could point and laugh, but because they’re so like mine.

    I have about a decade on you, but I remember my ephiphany moment – the day I realized that my failures were not something to run from, but well earned tuition.

    Sometimes I need a swift kick in the rear end to remind me to do something better. Othertimes I need that kick to tell me to back off and slow things down. Either way, it’s a cosmic wake-up call and I’m finally, finally listening. :)

  4. Thanks for letting me know others struggle with fear of failure. My blogging is haphazard b/c I often spend way to much time worry if a post sucks or what people will think. I end up frozen by the fear of failing at blogging of all things. :)

    Nice to remember to not let it paralyze me. Can’t learn without fucking up a few times. When we are kids we get that but when we are adults we just seem to think we should be perfect at all times.

    Now if I can just take that feeling of empowerment with me.

  5. Oh, the $2000 I can cop to. It’s the unending frustration bordering on resentment that’s growing for my sweet infant son who will not go the fuck to sleep. At all. Not for naps, not at night. 8 months of sleep deprivation and I am about to lose my mind. But that’s just between us. Can’t put that on *my* blog, it wouldn’t be relevant. ;)

    I did feel guilt over paying for the convenience of someone else building the coop. You have it exactly right: the *image* of DIY Urban Homesteady Girl isn’t: hey, here’s some money to fix my problem (lack of coop). It’s, “Hey, I can tackle anything! I’m capable, I’m competent! I can do it all by myself!” And that’s just not reality.

    I try to remind myself that a problem that can be fixed by throwing money at it, assuming you have the money to do so, isn’t a problem at all. It’s just an expense. Cancer is a problem, addiction is a problem, laying on the floor sobbing because you’re beyond exhausted and you’re so pigheaded that you keep trying to keep going, even though your brain hasn’t had quiet time for 8 months…well, that’s *my* problem.

    $2000 is just bartered time.

    If you figure out how to get through to yourself and stop trying to do it all, will you please, please tell me?

    Great post, per usual.

    1. Erica,
      We need to talk. About babies, and not so much babies anymore, and sleeping and not so much sleeping. I’d direct you to my archives, but I hear you’ve already read them all ;)

      1. I may have missed a few. I spent a good several afternoons on my ass on the couch with your blog but you’ve been at this for awhile; there’s material here. May have missed a month or two. Got a specific post (posts) I should check out?

  6. Once at a monastic retreat, I was very worried about screwing up the amazingly fussy and precise Zen rituals we were going to be doing the next day. I had only recently been lay ordained and though I had my robes, bowls, etc- all the trappings of spiritual materialism, I didn’t have my head very squared away yet.

    I diminished myself as only a sort of “home-school” Buddhist from small-town Alaska, and was in the midst of real deal big wigs in brown robes and was really afraid of messing up big time. I told the director.

    She said: “look, as a Buddhist, you know that all things are; impermanent, interconnected, and imperfect. Anytime you do anything for the first time, it’s going to be a little rough- even after doing something a zillion times you can still screw up.”

    “Whatever it is- just do the best you can with what you got at the time where you are. It’s all you can ever do. Embrace your awkwardness.” she said with a little exasperation. (I think that’s a kind zen paraphrase of “suck it up, cupcake!”)

    Anyhow “Embrace your awkwardness” has been a very helpful, as is the (obvious) knowledge that nothing is ever perfect. Though sometimes it takes some VERY big arms to embrace my awkwardness….. Besides, if we waited to be perfect before doing anything, nothing would ever get done.

    I went through some of our readings and found one that kind of speaks to this. I’ve attached it below.

    All the best, I love your blog posts.


    Saying Yes to an Open Heart
    Diana Winston- Buddhadharma, Summer 2010

    I’d like to propose that mindfulness- true blue mindfulness- is the open heart. Sure, the purists can define mindfulness as “paying attention to the present moment with an open and curious stance,” but that definition can be staid, sort of dull, and inadvertently can take the heart out of a practice, which is in truth, all heart.

    I remember in my early years of mindfulness Zen practice, I got attached to subtle mental states of concentration. I was intensely curious and amazed by my mind, but secretly I felt the practice was a little dry- too much in the head. So I spent a few years seeking out gurus in India, hoping for a bhakti hit to make my practice juicier. I later realized I was looking for love in all the wrong places- outside myself instead of inside.

    That’s when I discovered that mindfulness practice itself is the open heart. And here’s how it works: First you start out on the cushion (or chair for the less pretzelly inclined) and you attend to your present moment experience, no matter what it is- good, bad, or ugly. And as you practice and get some skill- “Hey! I can sit here and be okay in the midst of knee pain, in the midst of my aching back, my frayed nerves”- then you realize just this: the capacity to be mindful means having an open heart. It’s not a theory; it’s a heart/body-felt insight.

    Why is this so? Because as you sit there, time after time, you learn to say yes. Yes to your jagged breathing, yes to your itchy scalp. Yes to the chainsaw dude across the street, yes to your grief and pain and shame and grandiosity and fear. Not because you want to act on these things, but because they’re true, and fleeting, and simply part of who you are at the moment (but not even the half of who you really are). Your nervous system begins to relax- at last you’re acknowledging the truth of things.

    Saying yes means attending to and surrendering to your experience, whatever it is. It means feeling your body when you’re in the midst of a strong reaction or emotion, and letting whatever you find simply be there. It means coming back to your breath, or this present moment, again and again. It means noticing that thoughts and feelings and sensations come and go.

    You say yes to your pride, your stupidity, your murderous rage. Naturally you don’t act on you murderous rage, but you allow it to be true within you. It is a very inclusive practice. Nothing is ever left out.

    You discover that if you are pushing away your experience, even ever so slightly, you mindfulness is not fully realized, no quite formed. It is tainted by aversion, even just subtly. Now sometimes you truly can’t say yes, and then you say yes to the no: “I hate that I’m not feeling okay, but I’m actually okay with not being okay”.

    Saying yes in mindfulness practice eventually begins to spill over into your everyday experience. You start to say yes- with awareness- again and again: yes when that guy cuts you off in traffic, yes when your email box is spammed to the brim, yes when your doctor is an hour late, yes even when you lose a treasured person, place, or thing.

    You say yes to your experience of the present moment, whatever it is. You no longer reject and armor your heart. Not that you necessarily agree with the moment, or would wish it on anyone, or think it’s desirable, or wouldn’t try to rectify injustice, but you say yes because whatever life brings is just that, life as it is. And by saying yes, you let go deep down inside and can step forward with poise and balance and clarity to the next right thing.

    My six-month-old daughter has been waking me up hourly this week to night-nurse. Sometimes is say no. “Oh, Jeez, not again, what’s wrong with her? Will I ever get to sleep again”? In those moments, mindfulness is a vague “good idea” somewhere in my sleep-deprived brain.

    But other nights this week when she cries I simply, without thought, say yes. “Yes, darling, feast. Yes, I’ll be with you. Yes, I’m awake and that’s just how things are”. I listen to the stillness of the night (rare in Los Angeles), feel her warm body and attend to her snuffling slurps, and sigh that yes, this is life. A deep peace sets in over me.

    By doing this practice of yes, by mindfully embracing each moment with a willingness to accept things as they are, with a willingness to be with life- inner and outer- exactly as it unfolds, you may be able to look down at your chest and realize that your heart is gigantic. It’s expansive, spacious, broken open, like a big, fat suitcase overflowing with warm, comfy, oh-so-familiar clothes.

    You open and open, you attend and attend, you say yes, again and again, and then over time, the mindfully opened heart is more and more just who you are.

    1. Hey Kelly! Great to get a comment from you. Great essay too. This open heart stuff is where it’s at, but oh so hard to pull off regularly…

  7. Ken Robinson did a good speech in which he talked, amongst other things, about the value of failure. It’s called Do schools kill creativity, look it up on YouTube. He’s not a homeschooling guy or anything like that, just saying it like it. He’s talking about the British schooling system but making a very serious point about The importance of failure, as part of the learning curve. I really like what he has to say about education. Oh by the way, I used the quote, thank you! Have a looksey over at Feet on the Ground and Head in the Clouds.

  8. Erica- My boy did not sleep for 8 months either – at all, or only in two hour slots. Drove me nuts but it did change and he became utterly adorable and self sufficient. Just wasn’t a sleeper. It will get better.

    Kylie -Thanks, anyone with a sweet gentle nature is worth listening to.

    Stringz – Current issue of Oregon Humanities Magazine is on Failure. Might make for good reading.

  9. Great post, same stuff that’s been going through my head lately too… this Urban Homesteading Ideals business.

    As per the chickens thing, I wrote on Sharon Astyk’s recent blog post, chickens are the ultimate urban homesteading ‘accessory’, aren’t they, and they are integral & seemingly essential in many ways. Yet, we are waiting til get ours, til we have time & energy to look after them properly, but I tell you, we won’t be building our own house/ coop after all… same as Erica, we idealised it, we even have some resources, but we don’t have the time or the skills. Erica did a great thing though, in outsourcing to someone who needs the money & the job. In the mean time, I am going to buy local eggs, organic fertilisers and be amused by my children’s antics instead of chickens… and the world will be OK!

    I don’t think you need a hug, I think you need a high five! Good on you, for having the guts to throw out the marmalade and know that maybe you don’t need so much next time around. It’s something I deal with… I don’t want to waste anything, I *should* be making the most of an abundance BUT if in the end, I may have wasted energy, resources and my own time to preserve something that gets thrown out anyways. How to know, though, that’s the trick and the skills I am gaining now (hopefully) as a wannabe urban homesteader. And remind myself how lucky I am to be in a position to make mistakes…

  10. Fantastic post and great comments! Failure…yikes, the fear of failure.
    When I get down to it most of my “stuff” is connected to a fear of failure is some way, shape or form.
    Staying in a job that sucks my soul for one.
    Like Erica mentioned, I’m pigheaded- I will struggle and agonize and try to figure out anyway to do it ourselves- to the point of making myself bonkers. And with some things, it just makes me miserable. It loses the joy. If it causes so much angst is it even worth it?

  11. ….heres my great fear… that I’m not even trying to do amazing stuff and still I can’t keep up…just as I sort-of, kind-of get one basic thing in hand, say dinner, theres always some other disaster or three to trip me over (literally). All I want is to have an abundent backyard, clean home (full of beautiful, me made wonderful things), be trim, fit and healthy, have some time with the fella, time with the kidlets, time for books… But as soon as one thing has a tick, the others start smelling, yelling, dieing… Yep, my fear is that what I want is simple but that I just don’t have …. what ever it takes to have it.

    Thanks again for the eloquent philosophising. I keep wondering how this gift you have can A) reach as broad an audeiuence as possible and B) give back to you (in dare i say it, a monetary way). It would be great to have a class / group / forum for parents where you could facilitate these kinda discussions … compulsory for all would be parents of course (but they wouldn’t get it yet would they?). “HOw to love failure and your new child”. Catchy huh? This would of course happen in your free evennings….


  12. I’ve been told this in studying yoga, but I’ve seen it in many venues of life…a certain amount of tension that is necessary in order to sustain life. It is that very tension that maintains the balance. If there is no challenge, you lose muscle tone. You lose inspiration. Those challenges and potential failures are what keep us learning.
    I’ve been on both sides of it. I’m an ambitious person by nature, usually striving for something. But I’ve also had a period of life where I had many things organized just as I wanted them. Or at least, as I thought they should be…and there was a certain limpness to it. I had blocked out a lot of things that weren’t as I wanted them to be because I couldn’t change them. In the end, I had to open up to the stuff that I hadn’t dared to do, even if it meant giving up some of what I thought I was supposed to be/do/have. And it has turned out to be true. So rewarding.
    …I guess the point is to stay in that precious, precarious spot, right on the crest of the wave… and sometimes you pitch head over heels and get tumbled in the surf. You land on the beach with salt water in every orifice, coughing. But that’s ok. You’re really not much worse for the wear and besides, all waves end up back at the beach anyway, no matter how you get there. Hahaha, who knew it wasn’t a destination but an endless cycle. Advertising would have us think otherwise. Like getting in shape. As if you were going to “get there” and it was going to last. :) Apparently it’s not about achieving perfection but the humble, ongoing act of striving.

  13. Hmm, is it bad etiquette to leave comments on older posts?

    I look forward to the day that “limits” post finishes cooking and oozes out of your brain- or more realistically is carefully and skillfully sculpted- (unless I’ve missed it and am completely showing my sloppy reading skills just now). I spend a lot of my brain power mulling over a lot of those very same ideas. I second-guess my own eloquence into oblivion, so the thoughts don’t produce much more than “nnmeeeee…baaaaaaaad….” when I try to voice them. You’ve got your voice much more sorted out, it seems. (“Work for my entertainment!” said the stranger on the Internet.)

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