- What It Takes To Be Great
- What It Takes To Be Great 2: AJATT and Malcolm McDowell’s Outliers…wait…
- What It Takes to Be Great 3: Follow-Up
- What It Takes to Be Great 4: Capablanca
- Aim to Fail
- You can have do or be ANYthing, but you can’t have do or be EVERYthing
- Why Do People Who Have All the Time in the World Get Nothing Done?
- How To Accomplish Great Things: Small Victories, Winnable Games
“Genius is…the eventual public recognition of dozens (or hundreds) of failed attempts at solving a problem”
Babe Ruth Was A Big, Fat German Failure
If you read enough personal development books, you will eventually come across mention of one of the most profoundly meaningful statistics in the history of sports. That statistic being that for many years, Babe Ruth simultaneously held both the career home-run [714?] and strikeout [1330?] records.
Crazy, huh? It’s almost as if he were trying to become a living object lesson. Remember, he didn’t have “a lot of strikeouts“: he held The Strikeout Record; he failed More Than Anyone Else at hitting, not just for a couple of months but over his entire career — we are talking about a professional, by the way, a person whose job it was to play baseball. Notice how he had a 3-digit homerun count and a 4-digit strikeout count; he struck out almost twice as many times as he hit a touchdown…wait…He was the best because he was the suckiest. He succeeded the most because he failed the most.
What does this mean? It means, to paraphrase Anthony, son of Robbins, that: massive failure is the key to success. Michael of Jordan said it himself:
The Ring cannot be destroyed, Gimli, son of Glóin, by any craft that we here possess. I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.
If you want to succeed, double your failure rate. The ring was made in the fires of Mount Doom. Only there can it be unmade.
Now, I’ve heard all these quotes so many times that they don’t really grab me any more when I read them, but let me illustrate using my favorite person — me — as an (yes, I am that narcissistic) example.
I Am A Failure
At this writing, my KhatzuMemo stats indicate that since New Year’s Day 2007, I have done about 58000 flashcard reps with a retention rate of about 91%, where retention = a rep score of 3 or above. Sounds respectable enough. But, you realize that what this means is that I have failed to correctly read and/or comprehend a Japanese sentence item at least 5200 times over the course of two years and change — can you imagine tagging those end to end to end to end in a video (that would make a pretty cool “lowlight reel”)?!
More than five thousand failures. I’ve been wrong more times than there are stars in the sky visible to the naked eye [someone please check this]. I’m just saying: that’s a lot of fails. And if we (royal “we”) were to start counting from 2004, it would be about 100,000 reps with a similar 90-95% retention rate — that means something on the order of ten thousand failures. That’s ten thousand times I couldn’t correctly read or understand a sentence or phrase in Japanese: I am a failure.
And yet, I am very comfortable with both written and spoken Japanese. I can read, write, understand or say whatever I want or need to. I just got done doing all my taxes without a hitch. Clearly, this scale of failure helped. You’ll forgive the focus on SRSing, it’s just that it’s something that’s easy to measure and therefore compare quantitatively.
Errybody Awesome Is a Failure
Robbins goes on to discuss the number of times Walter Elias Disney was rejected by banks when he wanted funding for some goofy idea about a studio making full-length cartoons, and the number of times Sylvester Stallone was rejected when peddling the script for some kind of adult-oriented movie involving interracial pairings of sweaty, half-naked men touching each other with leather gloves in front of excited crowds of people. Most people would have given up.
Of course, it goes beyond Hollywood…I have friends who won’t go ice-skating with me because they’re afraid of falling. They have fallen 0 times. 0 failures. They have never failed at skating. But they also can’t skate…at all. In fact, I imagine the best skaters have also fallen the most times.
Arguably, a lot of our fear of failure most likely stems from how schools punish it. Schools promote avoidance of failure. This is a recipe for mediocrity. No meaningful success seems to come without hearty doses of failure. Failure needs to be celebrated. It needs to be sought actively. Failure is what needs to be for dinner.
I love blaming everything on school. But then, most of us did spent the greater part of our waking lives from toddlerhood to early adulthood either in school or in preparation to go to school or travelling to and from school or doing homework for school; schools have plenty to answer for; they can’t bait with compulsory attendance and then switch to learner-parent responsibility forever; they can’t keep waiting until someone gets killed and then feign shock at the “discovery” that they’re a breeding ground for violence. I mean, am I the only one who thinks that school shootings are actually surprisingly rare? Off topic. Anyway…
So how can you start failing? I think the thing is simply to find something you can crank at. Find or build a mechanism that allows you to fail a lot. Perhaps three figures minimum, possibly and preferably 4, 5, 6, maybe even 7+. Chances are, this mechanism will also allow you to succeed — in fact, it’s more or less guaranteed to bring you success…eventually.
You’re Not A Surgeon, So Don’t Strike Surgically
In life, whether it’s learning a language, building a blog, doing research, applying for jobs (if that’s your thing), trying to get good at shooting basketballs or even doing whatever it is people do to get into…romantic entanglements, many people — especially beginners — go for the surgical strike, because they’re so afraid of screwing up. There’s just one flaw with the surgical strike plan: only a surgeon can do surgery — only a highly trained expert with a matured skillset can even hope for a decent result on such paltry time resources. How do you get a matured skillset? By failing.
Generally, it would seem that only someone who’s missed tons of shots gets to hit consistently. Also, at the risk of adding too many parenthetic asides, actual surgeons of the medical persuasion obviously deal in situations where, how you say in the simple English, failure is not cheap. Then again, I did see something once about robotic “practice patients” for medical students, so clearly there are efforts being made to make failure cheaper for them, implying that they are also, in essence, trying to fail into success.
As a beginner, trying to go for that surgical strike is akin to giving a newborn baby an NES controller and saying: “you have 15 minutes to beat Mario…or else you will never amount to anything, you lachrymatory ball of fat!”. It’s as if beginners were a novice sniper trying to hit a single target using their first and only bullet; that’s how most people right now tend to operate. But that’s only a viable option if you’re statistically a really good shot, which, almost by definition, a beginner is not [no statistics to go off of].
Middle School, AKA Gattaca Lite
Unfortunately, failure to recognize the value of failure happens in sports all the time: too many people judge and are judged based on their first performance — how many egos have been crushed (not mine, but…people I know) because of using such a ridiculously small and downward-skewed sample? How many doors have been closed to figurative newborn babies? How many Michael Jordans get cut from high school teams?
In middle school, I can remember how in both P.E. classes and inter-school sports teams, the time, attention and resources were disproportionately concentrated on boys and girls who were hitting puberty at 11, and the rest of you kids with your slow-growing bodies could just bugger off, even though our parents were all paying the same tuition (the sports was not a business — no TV revenue or scholarships like NCAA, not even an effect on enrollment).
Now, why this middle school business still bugs me more than 10 years after the fact, is because the deafeningly loud silent lesson it taught was that effort didn’t matter and there was no such thing as meaningful development and improvement over time; only genetic predisposition mattered; only being 11 years old and having facial hair mattered. It was Gattaca Lite.
At some level, I can understand the school coaches’ problem — they needed to make a winning team as quickly as possible…but, again, that’s not really doing school any more, if only because nothing profound is being learned; that’s more of a professional/club thing where the focus is on execution.
As a compromise, a dual sports system might work, with a “we’re gonna use you now” short-term competition-centered section for freakishly large children, and a “build your skills now for the future” long-term training-centered section for children who like sports but aren’t yet big enough to be “useful”. Kind of a “separate but equal”…waitaminute!!
They did kind of try something like that by having multiple teams per age group, but the resource distribution was insulting; remember: everyone was paying the same overpriced tuition and the sports teams neither made money nor contributed to name-brand recognition…yet somehow the “lower” teams were invariably put on The Fields That The Groundskeeper Forgot, using equipment that had been oh-so-delicately aged to perfection by the finely tuned athletic machines of the Higher Teams. Where’s Linkin Park and a razor blade when you need them…
Cheap and Quick
Anyway, in less violent/jocky terms, letting go of the surgical-strike philosophy means: don’t try to write a magnum opus if you can’t even write an opus yet. Don’t try to write a novel if you can’t even write a short story yet. Don’t try to run a marathon when you can’t even run around the block yet (whoops…got jocky again).
It doesn’t take too much perceptiveness to see that the key with failing this much is you need to make it cheap. Time-cheap, money-cheap, effort-cheap and emotion-cheap. So each round needs to be short, not cost a lot, not take too much energy, and not be too crushing to the old dignity 1. Maybe this cheapness is another reason why small, short, winnable gamesare so good: A short game can be played many times → many failures → lots of success
According to the man himself in The Mindscape of Alan Moore, Moore, the best comics writer in the English language before me (why are you making that face?! wot iz that face?) — started out writing 4-page comic stories. Said he:
“I learned my craft doing very short stories, 3 or 4 pages each, which is an excellent way to learn writing of any sort.”
Even Moore-sensei’s early stories were likely unbefitting what we’ve come to expect of the Alan Moore legend. Knowing what we now know it would probably be easy to see or trick ourselves into seeing, the Moore mojo unfolding, but if we were to look at them “blind”, my gut tells me we’d be somewhat rather unimpressed.
Anyway, my point is, he had something he could crank. He had something he could fail at over and over and over again. He had a mechanism he could grind himself on until he got to razor-sharp perfection. He practiced with 4-page stories but matured into a graphic novelist just as you practice with phrases, sentences and pages as you gradually grow into a fully-fledged reader of your L2.
Mojo is made rather than born. I remember one time, I was at a gaijin friend’s house, arranging Internet service for him over the phone in Japanese, and then I hung up, and he and his roommates, having heard the entire exchange, decided that I had a “talent” for the language. And, frankly, I think I do, too; in fact, if you ignore minor details like how I once turned my entire life into a Japanese camp and spent all my disposable income on Japanese materials and severed any human relationship that significantly conflicted with doing Japanese and ate cake with chopsticks and slept with headphones on just-to-make-sure, then…yes…it was pure talent.
Case In Point: Why Spam Works
Not a positive example, but this massive failure business, by the way, is why spam works. Spam has found a mechanism that allows it to fail on a massive scale, this mechanism is called: “email is fast and free, motherlovers”, and what a wonderful mechanism it is. Can you imagine the indignity of paying for email? Forget them apples.
Now, most people aren’t going to buy into those…how can we be delicate about this…”organ enhancement” medications they sell in spam, even if I, I mean, my friend, needed them, which he doesn’t, but IF he did, he wouldn’t buy them. But someone somewhere always does. When you send out, what, a million emails a day — 365 million emails a year, son — you’re bound to get someone to bite, as long as the probability isn’t 0 (and in life, the probability is almost never 0 or 1), then you are guaranteed that you’ll get someone to buy your spam product even if I, I mean, my friend, were just buying those pills as a joke and didn’t really need them and was just testing the system.
For our theoretical spammer, even if 99.99% of these 365 million theoretical emails fail, that’s still 365,000 theoretical customers in the bag. That’s 365,000 people willing to pay ca$h money for the pills they need to (theoretically) bliss her out with their weapon of mass expulsion.
All this talk about massive failure = success…is exciting when we’re talking about it here in the squeaky-clean, theoretical Lalaland we can create for ourselves in the brief window of time where we’re reading and writing a post, but back in the real world, when you actually fail you don’t necessarily feel so good; we’re not trained to be excited by that sort of thing. And perhaps it’s for the best that we aren’t — what a bitter, Greek-tragedy-on-steroids irony it would be to instantly dislike or fail to recognize the success you had worked for.
My personal solution is to largely ignore the immediate failure-point at hand, and get excited about the overall process-function [of failing massively]; that’s how I stay excited and keep going. Individual failure-points are easy to feel bad about; as soon as they pass, ignore them. Let go of them and focus on the next round. You don’t think MS are still having crying fits and sleepless nights over “Microsoft Bob“, do you?
…Laughing fits, maybe.
There Are Exceptions
Having said all that, AntiMoon’s advice to “shut up before you hurt yourself” (which morphed into my advice to “shut up until it comes out correct and naturally by itself”) still holds. Personal developmenty advice of the kind that is the subject of this post can seem to run into contradictions because it’s so broadly applicable that nobody bothers to provide more rigid domain definition; suffice it to say that significant exceptions and counter-examples of virtually every principle exist; they may be rare, but they do exist; try not to go emo when you run into one. Think of these ideas as one of many tools in your toolbox; they work really well in some cases and not so well in others.
Anyway, enough talk! 問答無用! Time for you and I both to hurry up and get failing. And when people tell you to stop it because it won’t work and you’re crazy, as they probably will, you can think of Thomas Watson’s words:
[Dude.] A [homie] flattened by an opponent can get up again. A [homie] flattened by conformity stays down for good.
Oh yeah — I would love to read your suggestions for little games to fail at, or links to similar discussions, so please feel free to share them.
- On the dignity bit, you may just have to let go of your pride; this has always been very hard for me to do, but if the goal is worth reaching, then in some cases it might be worth eating humble pie for; my pride is usually set to off when it comes to languages — I try to mentally revert to the state of a toddler, where curiosity supersedes pride ↩