Failure can seem like such a terrifying thing sometimes. When you’ve invested yourself in something, fought hard, and lost, failure becomes this heavy dark cloud floating around your head. The other day, I was having one of those days where you just can’t seem to get it right. Nothing dramatic, just a series of small mishaps that built upon each other until the day earned the title of a not-so-great-day. As I hopped on the 328 bus to World’s End, contemplating the symbolism of the bus’s final destination given my not-so-great-day, I couldn’t help but get a little lost in that clouded feeling of failure. Some things I had really hoped would work out just weren’t going to, and I faulted myself. When I got home, however, my flat began to remind me of a very simple and very important life lesson. Fail big. And move on.
I say that my flat reminded me, because oddly enough, it was sort of like my little room was trying to cheer me up. Despite there being no wind inside my room, my curtains seemed to be trying to blow open to let in the sunlight. I picked up an old book and a fortune-cookie fortune fell out that read, “You are kind-hearted and hospitable, cheerful and well-liked.” I laughed out loud and then smiled at the book’s kindness of dropping such a note into my hand just then. I turn on the tv for background noise and caught the tail end of a Scrubs episode. A character in the hospital that everyone thought was going to be ok had just died leaving the shocked staff in that familiar cloud of failure. But at the end of the episode, the main character went home alone to turn on the tv to watch sitcoms and say that amidst the sadness of failure, there are still moments that can make us laugh and smile. Again, I smiled, at the irony of a sitcom cheering me up by telling me that sitcoms can cheer you up. Then, as I settled in with some readings, the tv still on in the background, the movie Elizabethtown came on. I’ve seen it before but never really appreciated it. I set down my readings and began soaking up the images of Kentucky and the south, scenes of places I’ve passed through on my own road trips. The main character, Orlando Bloom, has just lost his father and been fired from an incredibly prestigious job. He knew failure. Then Kirsten Dunst comes along and reminds him that life is about playing hard and striking out, and then getting back in the game anyway. Orlando Bloom slowly begins a journey of letting go and moving on, outlined by a montage of moments on his road trip of self-discovery, coupled with inspirational songs and narrative.
As simple as that message is, and as often as we hear it, it’s still pretty hard to embrace it in practice. Fail big. That means taking incredible risks on a daily basis. In one of my courses, we were talking about how we live in a risk society nowadays. There is so much uncertainty surrounding us. College degrees no longer guarantee a job, jobs are not so secure once you get them, economies worldwide fluctuate like crazy, the environment is seen as fragile and in danger, and technology is producing as many unintended “side effects” (to quote Ulrich Beck, a post-modernity theorist) as it produces progressive advancements. It’s no wonder that in the last twenty years there have been an explosion of new disorders and syndromes and everyone seems to be able to diagnose themself with something, most often relating to stress and anxiety. Daily life seems riddled with risk and uncertainty and the potential for failure. And in response we take protective measures to keep failure at bay. Deleuze, another academic, explains our desire for control amidst risk, and how that leads to exclusion. Like in a gated community, you have to have the password to get into the secluded yet safe world behind the gates. Similarly, we can build up emotional walls in a world where trusting strangers is just too dangerous. We wait for someone to come along with the password before letting them in on a personal level. We are incredibly guarded against the possibility of failure.
But what about the beauty that comes from failure? The growth that results from rebuilding after those walls have been torn down. Anyone who has failed miserably at something he cares about knows that he is stronger for it. The trick is having the courage to step outside the gated community in the first place, to live without walls at all. I think that if you truly live like that, you’ll probably end up making a fool of yourself pretty frequently. But I also think that in the long run, it’s all about perspective. When we are so zoomed in to our daily goals and successes, even small failures can look huge. But if we zoom out, there’s a much bigger picture and all that uncertainty fades into the background. If we zoom out, we can truly see all the beauty in failure and the necessity to live life boldly and fail often. And so, though it’s easier said than done, fail big. And move on.