Fail Often

I recently saw a kid wearing a shirt that said “No Diamonds Without Pressure”. I started thinking about this and thought over all the obvious cliches of forging metal with fire and all that. History has thoroughly chronicled the idea that adversity breeds strength.

Sometimes we approach this idea on too obvious a level. We only apply it to our massive “failures” and people only tend to enjoy stories of overcoming and trial-by-fire if they’ve experienced major obstacles themselves. Thankfully for the publishing, television and motion picture industries, this is most people. We all have our trials and tribulations. They may vary in severity, but they’re still there.

When people laud those who have “succeeded” it’s usually forgotten that the biggest successes are also the biggest “failures”. To do anything with skill or finesse, practice is required. Virtuosos don’t practice because they’re already good and they think they should practice; they become good through practice. Practice is just controlled failure. But once the mind trains itself to do something over and over again, it begins to divorce itself from the outcome of the thing. Instead of worrying about the result, it just does it.

This is why the most resounding achievements in any skill always seem effortless. People who do things skillfully do them because they are divorced from the result. They have failed so often and for so long that the idea of failure no longer phases them. Once you fail enough, success becomes both irrelevant and almost guaranteed. But at that point it doesn’t matter.

I’m young, and so I am constantly failing at things. I fail to uphold commitments to career paths, or to think of other peoples’ feelings at the proper times, or to remember whether or not I locked my car. These are all things that can cause daily mental trouble, but once you have that trouble under your belt you’re that much closer to a degree of mastery.

One of my favorite books is Zen In The Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel. It’s about an uninitiated white guy (just like me!) who goes to Japan and spends years learning how to shoot an arrow. He soon learns that the only way to do this, paradoxically, is to stop caring about the right and wrong way to do it. You just clear your head and shoot the arrow again and again for years until it clicks. All else is ceremony.

Things tend to “click” not in any direct way but on a deeper and more spiritual level. Once you do something for long enough and fail at it enough it just sort of resides within you. This is what I believe “mastery” to be. The only way to live with wisdom and skill is to fail often. I’m not saying to go out and destroy your life on purpose just so you can pick up the pieces— but when you make honest mistakes, do so with some dignity. Remember that you are always learning. While mindless behavior is not encouraged, mistakes only make you stronger. Allow them to teach you and try not to resist. Divorce yourself from a certain ends and you usually end up achieving it.

From the Tao Te Ching: “The world is won by those who let it go.” Fail often, and then let it go.

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