Into every life a little failure must fall. But is that such a bad thing?
Failure is arguably the second most inevitable thing in life. You will only get to experience the most inevitable thing in life once, and not until the very last moment. Failure, on the other hand, could pay a visit any day of your life.
It should come as no surprise, then, that the fear of failure is so widespread, and that it cuts to the core for so many people. I wonder sometimes just how many of us, if we were being truly honest with ourselves, would recognise and acknowledge the fear of failure as a key driving force in our lives?
Fail we may, sail we must
I’ve been thinking a lot about failure and the fear thereof these past few days. It started with a lovely response to my post Skateboards, destiny and ukuleles from my friend David D’Souza.* That post was about the unexpected, delightful inspiration I took from the skateboarding women’s park final event in the recent Olympics. I am pleased to report that reading that post in turn inspired David to go down a skateboarding YouTube rabbithole. Here’s a video he found in that rabbithole, followed by David’s words about it:**
“I woke up this morning and read your blog and then followed your video to the Olympics highlights. Then followed that to some other videos and ended up with the above. It’s about 25 minutes but it’s Tony Hawk talking about all of the tricks in skateboarding (with increasing complexity). What struck me – esp towards the end – was the respect in that community and the almost Zen type acceptance of potential failure and how it contrasts with other elite sport. ‘You need to do all these things and still you will fail’ and ‘I watched someone try this for 3 hours and fail every time but one. But it was worth it for that one time’.”
“You need to do all these things and still you will fail.” These words from Mr Hawk are simple yet profound. They acknowledge not only the high likelihood of failure in all of our lives, but also the fact that we must move forward and do what we need to do regardless. I’m reminded of the words the dear departed musical genius Andrew Weatherall had tattooed on his forearms:
“Fail we may, sail we must.”
I love David’s point about “the respect in [the skateboarding] community and the almost Zen type acceptance of potential failure and how it contrasts with other elite sport.” This acceptance of potential failure shone out in the Olympics skateboarding event I watched, as I noted in my reply to David:
“The sheer amount of times that each of the competitors in that event fails is pretty stunning. They each get three goes at the course, and I think it’s the case that every single one of them fails early on in at least one of their attempts. But every single one of them is accepting of each instance of failure. Just incredible to see, particularly when they are at such a decisive point in the Olympics!”
A failure always seems worse than it is
“At last I’d arrived at the beginning.”
This is Oliver Stone, from his superbly written memoir Chasing the Light, describing the moment when he finally got to commence the first day’s shooting on his third film Salvador. These words come at the end of a breathless, dizzying and frenetic 34-page chapter about the near life-threatening levels of personal risk (both financial and physical), worry and stress he went through between the initial idea for the film and getting to yell “Action!” for the first time.
Fear of failure and failure itself are frequent visitors to Mr Stone throughout this book. He describes the anguish that followed the commercial failure of his first two films as director.*** Salvador would prove a slow-burn success, and was followed soon after by the Oscar-hoovering Platoon. But this success was anything but inevitable. The chapter on the lead-up to Salvador perfectly illustrates the eternal truth that it is a miracle that any film ever gets made, let alone a good one.**** It is also a great example of how the fear of failure can fuel achievement.
Stone eventually finds a new perspective on failure. He went into Salvador viewing it as a personal make-or-break moment, almost a matter of life and death. Decades later, he is able to reflect on the intensity of those times, and to realise that the stakes are rarely as high as they might seem in the moment. Stone says:
“A failure always seems worse than it is. You think everyone is seeing it at the same time, and that everyone thinks the same way, which isn’t true.”
Fear of failure should never hold us back, he argues. To be active, to try to recognise and pursue destiny is almost a debt we owe to those who came before us. Early in the book, there is a remarkable scene in which the young Stone sits alone for a few moments with the body of his recently deceased grandmother in Paris. He recounts an imagined conversation with her spirit, in which she implores him to enjoy the gift of life to its fullest. She says (or, rather, he imagines that she says):
“My darling, my little Oliver, don’t be miserable for nothing… All my worries, what good did it do me? Look at me now, the way I am.”
It’s your voice
At the end of the excellent Tony Hawk video that David recommended, Mr Hawk sums up what skateboarding means to him:
“Skateboarding can be as complex as you want it to be. I think skateboarding at its base is a form of expression, and for me it is my artform. It’s also a sport. It’s also a lifestyle. But at its very core, it’s your voice, and you can do it in any style. The possibilities are endless.”
It is your voice. It is how you choose to approach what you do. It doesn’t have to be skateboarding. It can be anything to which you choose to turn your hand. Perhaps the only inevitable thing about what you choose to do is the fact that the possibility of failure is always present. You may or may not fail. You may or may not fear failure. But you should always do what needs to be done, regardless of worry.
All my worries. All your worries. All our worries. What good do they do us?
Fail we may, sail we must.
* My thanks to David for his kind permission to present his words here. In the unlikely event that you don’t already, please do consider following David on Twitter.
** As I wrote in Skateboards, destiny and ukuleles, it was the spirit of the competitors in this event that I found so inspiring:
“In their attitude before, during and after this Olympic event, these women demonstrate a different approach to competition, one that I find inspiring. With their smiles, their skateboards and their ukuleles, these women step confidently yet lightly into the moment that might shape their destiny.”
*** Stone’s first two films were the low-budget horror film Seizure (no, I’d never heard of it, either) and The Hand. I remember seeing the latter on TV in the 80s and finding it to be perhaps not the best film ever. In Chasing the Light, Stone recounts catching up with Caine years after The Hand. Caine tells Stone that it played an important role in financing the two rooms above his garage.
**** For more on just how unlikely it is that any film is ever made, let alone a good one, I recommend the following two books by David Hughes: Tales from Development Hell: The Greatest Movies Never Made? and The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made.