Tag Archive for: failure

Vocational Freedom (Release the Zero-Sum Game)

For twelve years, I worked as a litigator at the largest firm in the state of Arkansas. Litigation so often felt like a zero-sum game, a winner-take-all proposition. My win was my opponent’s loss, and the winners were rewarded. The good litigators never lost, they said, and the awful litigators never last. This is the way the law works. She’s not a jealous mistress; she’s a black widow.

The zero-sum game is an unspoken facet of the lawyer’s ethos. If the cases came to my door, they didn’t come to yours; if they came to yours, they didn’t come to mine. And in that environment, it was easy to loathe (cordially, civilly, privately) your colleague’s success. Their accolades, their clients, their cases were just that–theirs.

Speaking to the baby-lawyer version of myself, I might say these things: It’s not as winner-take-all as you might think, Seth; celebrate your colleagues’ success; there’s plenty to go around.

I’m in a different vocational space, now. Now, I write for a living. I pitch projects against other people pitching projects. Sometimes, I pitch significant works against friends. And yes, in the pitch-against-pitch showdown, one will win and the other will lose. Is this any different than the law? Isn’t my new vocation mired in the same zero-sum games?

In the last six months, I’ve lost a couple of pitches, both times to friends. Both of the winners du jour are fine writers and even better humans, and even in the disappointment of losing a fantastic job, I’ve found myself happy for them. They have their own businesses to run, their own mouths to feed, their own college savings accounts to fund. And because I want the best for them, because I want to incarnate the notion of love-thy-neighbor (and and thy neighbor’s kids), it’s hard to see this as a zero-sum game.

My friend, my neighbor has won, and shouldn’t I celebrate his success?

And celebration of the neighbor aside, each pitch I lost taught me a little more about the next pitch. As I wrote in my series on failure, the loss taught me something about myself, my process, or my skill set. The lessons from loss always make us stronger, always refine us.

The zero-sum-game ethos is an absolute killer. It will haunt you, will cut all the right veins, will drain you and fill you back up with jealously, anger, bitterness, and resentment. Love of your neighbor, celebration of your neighbor–these are the antidotes to the poison.

Ask yourself where you might be playing zero-sum games in your own life. Ask where the all-or-nothing, winner-take-all mindset has taken root, where it’s given birth to jealousy or resentment against your neighbor. Ask where it’s made you covet your neighbor’s clients, career, or opportunities. Practice rooting these games out by loving your neighbor as you would want to be loved, by celebrating them as you would want to be celebrated. This is a key to vocational freedom.

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Collective Failure and a Drunk President

I’ve explored failure this week, the ways our recognition of it and honesty with it can instruct, refine, and guide. It’s a lesson I’ve learned from experience, from years of floundering in a failing faith and drinking away the pain. This season of alcohol dependency was an acute season of failure, and the smell of that failure–the juniper of the gin, the oak in the whiskey–lingers. It reminds me that my doubts were only resolved by walking through the failure and into the healing of true inner sobriety.

Our personal failures provide a unique opportunity, I suppose. Don’t our collective failures provide the same sort of opportunity?

Months ago, our country found itself drunk on self-importance and self-interest, on single-issue politics, on reactionary rage. So many put aside their civil scruples (81% of evangelical Christians, in fact), closed their moral compasses and voted for a new sort of mix-it-up, social media, reality television, kingpin president. Drunk on his promises, they excused his past failures–misogynism, xenophobia, jingoism, a history of racism–failures from which he never learned. And so, as President of the United States (an office deserving of dignity), Donald Trump continues to repeat the brash mistakes of his past. Yesterday, he engaged in the petty slander he’s come to be known for, attacking the appearance of yet another female cable news anchor.

There can be no denying it–President Trump is drunk on vengeance and rage. Vengeance and rage are coming from his Twitter stream, from his ears, from his eyes, from his wherever. These demons have blinded him to his failures, have kept him from the emotional and moral maturity expected of a president. You can mark my word; this will be his undoing.

Our collective failure as people of faith, our inability to see past our own self-interest for the good of our country has led to the sorts of indignities we see coming from the White House. And though we cannot make the President of the United States sober up, though we cannot make him learn from his own mistakes, we can tend to our own sobriety. We can confess the drunkenness that resulted in him becoming the Chief Executive.

Failures are an opportunity to recollect, to refine, to course correct. If this is true–and I think it is–our country has not seen a more opportune time to recollect, refine, and course-correct in my lifetime. Our failure is our drunkenness. It’s time to sober up.

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Photo by Michael Vaden; licensed under Creative Commons via Flickr.

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The Disciple of Failure

The photograph header for this series on failure includes an icon I keep in my planner. It’s an icon of Thomas, the doubter of doubters, with his too-long fingers stuck in the side-wound of Christ.

“I won’t believe,” he said, “unless I feel the wounds.”

Faith? Nah. Give me the evidence, man.

Christ gave him that evidence; he appeared in the upper room and invited Failing-Faithed Thomas to touch his sticky wounds. Thomas’ did, and his response was simple and faithful–“My Lord and my God.” It was a moment of fresh faith that sprung from the recognition of his failure, his doubt. The failure of his faith served as a sort of floor, a foundation for the construction of something more sturdy.

Thomas’ failure was recorded in great detail in the Gospel of John and has survived these 2,000 years. (Thomas (or John, rather) showed us his work.) But the restoration that sprung from that failure was recorded, too. What’s more, church history teaches us that Thomas was, perhaps, the first missionary to the East, that he died his own martyr’s death for the faith. Could there be a more successful act of faith than dying a martyr’s death?

I keep the icon of Doubting Thomas in my journal as a reminder of sorts. I take it out from time to time, look at the kneeling, placid-faced man recollecting his faith, and I remember the lesson of his life. Failure is not fatal if you have the courage to see it for what it is–an opportunity for restoration.

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Algebraic Sexism and the Wisdom From Failure

Yesterday I identified the problem:

Modern self-helpism is built upon this little self-aggrandizing untruth:
Failure can be avoided if you apply the right formula, my formula.

We see this self-helpism at work in the world around us, on Twitter, Facebook, the bookstore shelves (even in the Christian Living section of said bookstore). Success sells. Beauty sells. Self-actualization sells. Pristine spirituality sells. Here’s what doesn’t sell quite so well–failure. Isn’t failure a prerequisite to growth, though? And though I’ve spun a few thousand words about the more grandiose failures of my own life in Coming Cleanit’s not just the big failures that shape us, that modify our courses and help us grow. It’s the little ones, too.

In the tenth grade, my honors algebra teacher, Mrs. Cokely, was a stickler for details. During our second semester, she introduced a sort of algebraic equation that required something on the order of 342 steps to complete, and any misstep along the way produced a result on par with absurdity. There was, of course, a simple process by which the answer could be derived with the push of a few buttons on a $100.00 calculator. Mrs. Cokely, though, was intent on teaching us the steps of calculation. She confiscated our calculators, said they were contraband of the highest order and set us down the path of complexity with little more than a pencil and a ream of graph paper.

“You need to work the steps, suffer the failures, understand the why before I return your calculators,” she said. It was failure that produced true understanding, knowledge. This was her deepest belief.

As any good teacher should, Mrs. Cokely did not confine her wisdom to the realm of mathematics. During that same frustrating semester, my friend and cheerleader, Sydney, was delivering a note from the principal. She walked through the door, and brash as I was (unpolished, you might say), I might have whistled to get her attention. That whistle may have been mistaken by Mrs. Cokely for a cat call on account of the fact that it was (in fact) a cat call, and the mathematician with a penchant for rule-enforcement turned fire-engine red. When Sydney left the room, Cokely stood, rigid as a yardstick, silent as one, too, and she pointed to the hall.

In the hall, she backed me against the lockers with her bony pointer. “Do you know what sexual harassment is?” she asked. I hemmed and hawed some unsatisfactory non-answer. Mrs. Cokely laid down the law. “Sentences, Seth. You will write, ‘I will not sexually harass the cheerleaders,’ 300 times, or I will fail you.”

She’d identified my lack of character, my failure, and if I didn’t accept the punishment for that failure, she’d fail me again. Failure unrecognized leads to more failure. This is the lesson Mrs. Cokely hoped to teach me. The lesson stuck.

This is the truth about failure: it shows us the areas of our shortcomings, teaches where we’ve miscalculated or overstepped. It’s the recognition of that failure, whether in the miscalculation of algebraic equation or the acting out of macho sexism, that teaches us to refine our process, to correct our course. It’s the showing of our work, the outing of our own embarrassing histories of failure that gives us the credibility to share the wisdom of our personal growth in a more refrined way.

Words approximating wisdom but built on the flim-flam of feel good self-helpism are worthless. Wisdom gleaned from failure after failure after failure–there’s the gold. So, I’m making this request to the formula-peddling self-helpers (Christian and otherwise): Don’t just sell me your answers; show me your work.

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The Truth About Failure

We live in an era of bite-sized wisdom, of perpetual self-help, of too many mini-gurus. Yesterday, I cruised Twitter for less than thirty seconds, and in that thirty seconds, I found all the answers to life’s pressing problems. Allow me to recap.

Mini-Guru No. 1 shared how I might maximize my profit by working less and living more.

Mini-Guru No. 2 offered a pinnable platitude (a cliche, really) about who-knows-what-? by stringing together an embarrassing number of pseudo-Christian words that were meant to inspire my faith.

Mini-Guru No. 3 instructed me on the “6 Ways to Avoid Delayed Adulthood,” an article that was strong on motivation and short on substance.

This is the way of so much of our media these days–strong on motivation and short on substance.

(Let’s drop the pretense. I’m just calling it like I see it. Straight, no chaser.)

It’s a motivator’s market these days, and the market is always open. People have questions. These gurus have answers (or so they claim). Answers are marketable things.  But is it really as simple as the internet motivators say? Can I maximize profit without work? Can faith be inspired without substance? And how can any ill be cured in Six Simple Steps (Patent Pending)? The question governing all of these questions was asked by my internet acquaintance Myles Werntz:

This brings me to the problem, a problem I’ll unpack a little more this week.

THE PROBLEM
Modern self-helpism is built upon this little self-aggrandizing untruth:
Failure can be avoided if you apply the right formula, my formula.

Hope as you might, following cliche after cliche will not help you avoid the pain of failure. Personal. Professional. Moral. Spiritual. Failure will happen. This isn’t a truth that sells well in the market, but that doesn’t make it less true. So, this week I hope to convince you to bypass so much of the guru-spun motivational gobbledygook of the day and to take an honest inventory of your failures.  I hope to convince you that this inventory of failures is where true growth starts. Personal. Professional. Moral. Spiritual.

Where should we start, though? How about here: today, scroll through Twitter, Facebook, your favorite lifestyle magazine, and identify the mini-gurus, the people who’d give you easy answers to very complicated issues. What substance are they offering? Any?

 

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