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How to Fail at Practically Anything

How to Fail at Practically Anything
How to Fail at Practically Anything

    I say, fail a lot. Push yourself to the limits of your talents, endurance, and common sense, and then go one step further and fall down, spectacularly if possible. Failure is one of life’s great forces; it’s driven far more innovation than talent, creativity, or necessity combined. Plus, its stories are better.

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    Most people, of course, avoid failure. Or, at least, they try to, as much as possible. Or, even worse, they deny having failed and push on steadily against increasing odds just to show ‘em they mean business. What good comes of that? What lessons has success ever taught?

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    Pick a skill, any skill: let’s say, tightrope walking. Imagine the first time you approach the cable stretched taught out in front of you, you close your eyes, stick out your hands, and walk to the other side. The next time, same thing. And the next. You are, it seems, amazingly gifted at walking across thin cables suspended high above the ground. How’s that make you feel? Have you learned anything? Should I admire you? Do you even admire yourself? Or are you bored, having found tight-rope walking to be as easy (easier, in fact) as falling down? And where do you go from there?

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    No, it’s the failures we face, large and small — and the way we face them — that make us who we are and give us the opportunity to make ourselves better. How we fail is at least as important as how we succeed. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on failing, drawn from my own vast experience:

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    • Fail with grace. There’s no point failing if you’re going to go screaming and crying into the night. When failure is imminent, cut your losses; don’t fool yourself into thinking everything’s fine, or that you have to “see things through to the bitter end”. Don’t pull others down with you– and that means, don’t waste time pointing fingers. Own your failure. Take responsibility for the mess you’ve made, and for cleaning it up.
    • Have a Plan B. When their first attempts to contact the governments of Earth failed, did the aliens of Space Station 7 go down with their saucers? No, they pulled out Plan 9 and entered movie-making history! No plan is failure-proof; embracing failure means accepting the risks you’re taking and being prepared for the worst.
    • Forgive and relive. Review the events that led up to failure. What did you miss? What could you have done differently? While blaming others is hardly productive, if your trust in others was misplaced, consider what led you to put your trust in them in the first place.
    • Get perspective. Tell an outsider your story, someone you trust to tell you what a knee-biter you are. Ask what they would have done differently, and what advice they’d give you if you were just setting out on your failure.
    • Stop doing that! My dad used to tell me, “Insanity is when you do the same thing over and over, hoping for different results.” Once you’ve identified your mistakes, make an effort to avoid them in the future. I know this sounds like plain common sense, but like they say, common sense isn’t common. Think of all the times you’ve seen someone go through an awful breakup only to take up with a new boyfriend or girlfriend with the same faults as the one they just dumped.
    • Do something. Fail actively; don’t give up and stand like a deer in the road, vacant-eyed, watching the headlights overtake you.

    Failure is the most important learning tool we humans have at our disposal. But if we merely accept failure and move on, we may as well not have failed at all. Instead, we should embrace our failures, milking them for everything they’re worth. Ask yourself what you can take away from your failures, what you’re being given by them.

    In the end, it is only by embracing failure that we achieve success. In many cases, not to fail is, in itself, a failure. Did I just blow your mind? Or have I failed?

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    Last Updated on August 20, 2019

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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