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Be Responsible: Fail-SAFE

There has been a lot of talk about failure lately—articles in highbrow publications and interviews with Oprah and other celebrity self-help professionals on every channel in the universe vaunt the romance of falling on your ass. Top talent seekers claim their top picks must have some ill-fated entrepreneurial venture on their CV’s. 
It’s almost like failing has become downright fashionable.
If that’s the case, I think I failed to get the memo. Nothing about the experience seems like anything you’d want to have. At least, maybe not the way I do it.
Some people enter into things carefully, after a certain amount of consideration. They proceed cautiously—they read up on it, they take lessons, they start on the bunny slopes. I usually find myself trying things because they sounded interesting or fun or just completely crazy or I’d secretly been mulling it over for a few decades and suddenly just decided “what the heck?” 
For the first group, failure might come in small, manageable waves. 
But I am an epic failer.
That’s not a typo. 
I am one who fails. A lot. And spectacularly.
You could say I’m an expert.
Yes. It is embarrassing to admit it.  I hate failing. It is a painful, consuming, humiliating and completely exhausting experience. 
Am I a complete failure?  Why, no—the very idea! 
I’m still alive, for starters. This is no small feat. Due to my personal penchant for risk, I actually won a betting pool that had odds I wouldn’t live to the age of forty. So, there! I worked my way through college and earned a demanding degree. I’ve traveled extensively and adventurously. So far, I’ve had a successful marriage and my two smart, strapping teenage boys are turning out very satisfactorily indeed. Our home is a happy one, full of interesting people and conversations, music, and excellent food and art and bizarre, funny things. We are presently building a farm in Kentucky,—a thing I have dreamed about since I made my first mud pie. I have lifelong friendships. I have successfully lost 15 pounds at least seven thousand times. I have two ridiculous dogs that love me and two cats that don’t really love anyone, but everyone knows cats are like that so I don’t take it personally. I’m buying a horse next week—something my husband promised he would buy me if I married him. That was 22 years ago.
On the other hand, I'm emerging from a rapid-fire series of project failures both small and large in which I ruined several pieces of one-of-a-kind vintage fabric and discovered that I have neglected my artist skills for perhaps too long. Also, I'm photographing my fall and winter inventory of Goodwill finds for my eBay business which--frankly--makes me feel like a complete loser. It wasn't supposed to turn out with me up to my ass in Goodwill clothes!

So, I guess I'm sort of in the doldrums of The Fail Wave.


Because Failure is a wave—as certain as the tides: an unavoidable, completely inevitable constant of chaos and humiliation and stubbed toes. A wave that rocks your world and buckles the sidewalk under our feet. All the dang time.

And maybe that’s the thing that separates feeling like an “utter failure” and being an “epic failer”: the Fail Wave. Because if you do something once and fail and it crushes you like a bug (because it always feels that way), so that you never, ever dare to try a second time because you’re too afraid it might happen again (and it always will)—a one-and-done, crash-and-burn life-story arc: that’s more like failure. But if you think of failing like riding waves—well! The fun can go on and on!
I’m no hang-ten surfer girl, but I know a likely analogy when I see one: when the waves start coming in—(you might also call them challenges, or life-changing events or even opportunities), you paddle out and wait for your wave; watch it, time it—just so! You get yourself up on your board, and get your legs under you just as the wave starts to curl. Then, if you’ve done all that stuff right, you ride your wave: a delicate dance between the raw power of water, the deft balance of sinew and muscle, and liquid, skimming grace of the board. A lot of the time—for me, the non-surfer—it’s more of a shaky, white-knuckle terror-ride. Because at any point, you can lose it: your timing, your balance, your nerve, the wave itself. One thing goes, but then it feels like everything falls apart and kapow!—wipe out!! And depending on how spectacularly, it might—to those sunbathers on the shore, (who aren’t doing anything, by the way)—appear to be wild, painful failure. But you are still alive! So, unless you break your neck, or get eaten by sharks—what sense does it make to just give up and go home? (Well, of course you could…but you’re here, the sun’s still shining, the waves are still coming in, you rented the board for the whole day) Honestly—you might as well turn it around and start paddling.
Admittedly, you have to give yourself a bit of time to get your head above water, catch your breath, figure out what hurts. In an abstract way, any idea is also rather like having a child—they are conceived, incubated and, if viable, brought into reality. So, when an idea fails it is a very, very tiny bit like losing a child (one of my own most agonizing past failures, in fact). And you can’t simply replace one with another and carry on as though nothing ever happened. As much as you would love to be that efficient, you need to take inventory of your hurts, analyze what went wrong, and—more importantly—what went right. Beware, though: this is the dangerous time—you’re tired, you’re a bit gun-shy, and the ocean just seems so enormous and full of waves just waiting to smash you to smithereens. 
People who love to say things like, “Follow Your Dreams” and “Live Your Passion,” also love to say things like,“Always Be True to Your Inner Self” and “Never Give Up.” And, fine—in the long view, this is true—learn from your mistakes, pick-yourself-up-dust-yourself-off and blah, blah, blah. But in the short view, I say (and remember, I’m an expert): it’s okay to give up—yes! really! Especially if it’s something you want to get really good at. Sometimes, it’s advisable to allow a little project to fail early on so you can apply what you learned to the next one without losing too much of your life’s blood, sweat and tears. A novel with a plot that never really gelled after 150 pages does not need to go into a second draft; a cake that collapsed does not need to be iced; the sewing project that looks like a dishrag doesn’t need the buttons sewn on. Sometimes you need to just file the novel away; give the cake to the chickens; salvage what fabric you can and save the buttons!
So there I was, tearing out seams and saving buttons on one of my failed projects, and, even though I know better, it still certainly still feels like complete and utter failure. I wondered if I will ever be able to do anything right, if I will ever succeed, and why do I even try to do anything at all? 
Wipe-Out.
Then, things get murky, like water going over my head and in my ears: I know I usually allow myself to sleep too much, eat too much chocolate, wear soft, stretchy pants. I also know at a certain point, the chocolate gets cloying and I will run out of yoga pants. Then, of course, there are still dull-but-real deadlines, teenage boys and a husband who still need clean trousers and school uniforms, and dogs that need sticks to be thrown and cats that need new toilet paper rolls to shred. You can only wallow so long in your own failure when you seem to be the only one irritated that the toilet paper comes off in raggedy strips. But, miraculously, the smell of clean, sun-dried laundry is lovely and it is rather therapeutic to match socks and iron shirts while binge-watching nature documentaries on Netflix. Still—every single time—it’s impossible to see that I will ever recover my familiar, pouncing enthusiasm. I tell myself this may be my life from now on: laundry, Netflix and toilet paper.
So resigned, I goof around with little things: I write e-mails and letters to friends and try to amuse them with my latest follies and failures; I shop at thrift stores; I dawdle on Pinterest. 
But you know what they say about time and distance. 
I have been known—while writing an email lamenting the failure of a writing project—to be suddenly struck by the very word, or phrase or idea that will bring it all together. In the process of procrastinating some deadline, I have been known to stumble across what I had thought was a previous year’s failed novel and see more clearly where it had wandered off course. A gorgeously-tailored, vintage tweed blazer I find at the Goodwill provides a tactile illustration of an inspiring sewing technique that spawns a new project. Most recently, a random image that I scrolled past on Pinterest provided an Aha! moment that snatched what I thought was a failing idea right out of the jaws of defeat. 
I had the perfect buttons for it.
Then, there was all this chocolate I had just lying around and I found a very tempting new recipe for chocolate cake…

And the wave starts to come in again. 


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