lessons, miscellany, NYC

the oft-forgotten virtue of succeeding by planning to fail

Thursday I had lunch with someone who embodies the typical upper-middle-class NYC character stereotype. This is not a complaint, just an observation. His personality is actually endearing rather than off-putting and is in stark contrast with my own. A mutual friend said, describing him, “He’s the kind of guy who says things loudly,” even things he might know nothing about, but in a way that makes you want to agree with him.

In any case, over lunch at the Penn Club he told me about a group his friend started called something like The Failure Club. The point of the club is to set a goal, 365 days out, that is highly improbable but not impossible (like hosting Saturday Night Live or winning a Pulitzer). The group meets regularly and each person sets measurable goals to be met by the next meeting; all of the goals are those you’d expect on the path to achieving your goal. So if your goal were to host SNL, maybe you’d take certain classes, perform at open-mike nights, start making connections, do research on how one might be asked to host, etc.

The crux of the process, though, is that if, at the end of the 365 days, you have succeeded in meeting your goal, then you’ve actually failed. You didn’t set your sights high enough or improbable enough.

It’s an interesting setup, the idea of doing all of the work that is required to meet a nearly (but not) impossible goal, thereby experiencing tremendous growth in whatever field you’re exploring, but not actually achieving the end result. But think about how much one would actually accomplish if one were to do this: aiming for a Pulitzer, you’d have written a book and gotten it published and made connections and found a place for yourself in the world. For all of those people who merely dream of having a book published, this would be tremendous growth.

This reminded me a little bit of Tom Peters’ “fail forward fast” thinking, which was popular in the 1990s (I worked at a bookstore then, and his books flew off of the shelves). Peters said, more or less, that we learn by failing and the more quickly we fail, the more quickly we’ll figure out what works. In essence, we learn more from our mistakes than we do from our success.

Putting the two of these together, I’ve been thinking that the “failures”of the last few years — in layoffs and Jack’s death and relinquishing custody of the boys and various health issues — don’t have to be what they are at face value (disappointments) but can instead be part of the vast knowledge I have about my life and what I value. And all of the effort I am making to find a job in NYC — more than I ever have expended for any other venture in my life — is serving to teach me lessons about my commitment to a task and which methods are effective. And while I certainly don’t believe my job-hunting falls into the parameters of The Failure Club (nearly impossible, and if I succeed I fail), I do appreciate the deep emphasis on the process rather than focusing on the outcome.

It’s been a tough day today, physically, only the second day since moving to NYC that I’ve felt largely incapacitated by my fibromyalgia, but it’s allowed me to think more about the role of failure in my life. Surely we all fail more than we succeed — if we are honest about the subject — and if I’m able to be kind to myself about the ways in which my body sometimes “fails” me (looking at outcomes), I should also learn to look at failures in other areas with equal measures of acceptance.

I won’t (can’t?) go so far as to say that I’ll be planning to fail in the future (near or far), but this shift in perspective is certainly helping me. Perhaps by looking at the process, also, I will feel less disappointment when the outcomes don’t look very much like I’d planned.