I was expressing my general frustration with myself on Twitter this morning, noting that I wished I could take a master class in pitching from one of the writers/editors that I quite admire and like. One of them, Bora Zivkovic, picked up the conversation and talked about writing a post on what he’s looking for at the SciAm Guest Blogs, which is admittedly a different beast than pitching to magazines (let alone paid sources). He also linked me to The Open Notebook, which is a URL that Leigh Turner actually passed on a while back – something I both acknowledged on Twitter and then joked about, saying that I need to just carve out some time to fail.
That concept, though, struck me.1 Failure isn’t really something we celebrate, or even much encourage in society – and within both academia and writing, failure might as well be a four letter word. Maybe I feel this more acutely due to a variety of pressures, including frequently being labeled “one of the smart kids who’ll figure it out on her own” and the pervasive sense of impostor syndrome2 stemming from the fact that I managed to fall into semi-professional writing without having to learn the ropes. But a lot of the process is opaque to me – while I seem decent at the first steps of networking, moving beyond that to the selling self point? No clue. (And there is some irony here, in that I’m really very good at connecting other people together. Perhaps I should ditch aspirations of writing and instead become an agent.) And more than the process being opaque, I’m not even sure who to ask to make it less – and the advice I have received has been quite similar to school: “oh you’re smart, you’ll figure it out.”
We could quibble all day over the first statement, so won’t – but there is pressure within the second half, the “you’ll figure it out.” Why? In some ways, it feels like it takes away the safety net of failure. The presumption – at least how I read it – is that this thing I’m wondering about, be it pitching or anything else, is so simple that I should have no problems figuring it out, and therefore I cannot fail. Since I’m not a surgeon or in some other lives-depend-on-me profession, the notion of not being able to fail is rather silly, but the idea that I cannot is, in itself, paralyzing.
And this isn’t the first time I’ve encountered it, and I’ve heard from friends in the humanities, social and “hard” sciences who’ve had the same experience. Their PI or advisor tells them to take care of X, it’s so simple – one friend was told that a chemistry lab was so simple a monkey could do it. And he sat in the lab for several days, unable to decipher what he needed to do, but terrified to ask for help because he should be smarter than a monkey.
I wonder what we’re losing, by not giving ourselves – especially those of us just starting out – the chance to fail, and learn from those failures? I remember that being a common mantra from my mother when I was growing up: try. If you don’t succeed, try again. Learn from your mistakes. At some point, though, the idea of learning from mistakes dropped away and was replaced with the idea that there simply cannot be mistakes.
One of the most important concepts in Buddhism is that of beginner’s mind, perhaps best summed up by the quote that “in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”3 This concept basically says that you should always remain open to the world, eager and without preconceptions, as a novice would be, rather than live within the world of expectations and boundaries that come when you are an expert. Children are the best examples of beginner’s mind, because they explore the world with an openness and creativity that isn’t bound up in fear of failure or acknowledgement of limitations.
My initial reply to Bora, that I just need to carve out some time to fail, was a joke, but the more I think about it the more I realize that it’s true. I need to carve out that time to try new things, and to fail and be rejected, to apply beginner’s mind beyond the meditation cushion and give myself permission to not be perfect on the first try, but instead learn from those experiences, dust myself off, and try (try) again.