Sunday, January 31, 2016

Failure is Not an Option

"Snarled, Thorny, Beautiful" 
  -along a wilderness trail- 

This morning I came across an article in the New York Times about why “highly-gifted” child prodigies exhibit very little creativity and often engage in careers that offer very minor contributions toward making this a better world.

These children have astronomically high IQ’s. They can play Bach by the age of 4, speak foreign languages fluently by the time they are 8 years old and have mastered calculus by the time they are 6. The thing is they are so perfect that their parents and teachers never allow them to make any mistakes. Failure is not an option, and because of this they never learn how to do anything original with their lives. The article observes:

The gifted learn to play magnificent Mozart melodies
but rarely compose their own scores.
They focus their energy on consuming scientific knowledge,
not producing new insights.
They conform to codified rules rather than inventing their own.
Practice makes perfect but it doesn’t make new.

I recently heard a story about Thomas Edison and his invention of the light bulb. Apparently Edison failed almost 1000 times before he finally succeeded at his invention.  Imagine it, 999 attempts, almost a thousand miserable failures over an extended period of time; and it was only the 1000th attempt that he finally got the bulb to work - the rest is history.

As the story goes, soon after the success of the light bulb was revealed to the general pubic, a French reporter asked him, “Mr. Edison, how did it feel to fail 999 times?” Edison replied, “Young man I have not failed 999 times, I have simply found 999 ways to create a light bulb.”

If Thomas Edison had lived in our own times he would have probably been fired from his job after a month or two for his astounding inability to “produce.” There is no place in this culture for anyone who constantly makes mistakes – especially for people who are gifted and talented. And yet it is through making mistakes, through 999 failures that creativity springs up and invention is given birth.

As I see it, this “glorification of perfection” is perhaps even more widely exacerbated when it comes to the spiritual life. Somehow whenever “God" gets involved in the picture, failing and making mistakes is never on the menu.  Many believe that “God” expects people to “always do the right thing,” obey all the commandments, follow the laws of the church or temple, failing to do so is a sin that demands punishment.

Even for those less “religiously” inclined, spiritual pursuits are often viewed as a journey to perfection. Meditation, proper breathing without distraction- these are the demands of the spiritually disciplined, and failing to perform these disciplines properly is often seen as an embarrassing flaw.  

I actually think that failure and making mistakes is innate to our human condition. In fact, for me, the great paradox of all life is that the way to be happy and fully alive is to recognize and embrace our inherent imperfection.  

When we embrace our own mistakes and learn to live with and forgive our own failures and the failure of others, we find what it means to be a human being.  

Priest and author Richard Rohr once observed;

We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.
The demand for the perfect is the greatest enemy of the good.

In today’s “failure is not an option” culture, I think people tend to be way too hard on themselves.  Maybe this is a good day for each of us to give ourselves a break. We are all   “imperfectly beautiful”- that’s how “God” made it all.


  1. Wonderful post. To fail and be imperfect means we are human. And I find that the more I accept my own failure and imperfections, the more I can accept and smile about them within others. Isn't it glorious that we all stuff up! Thanks, as always, for sharing xxx

    1. As always, thanks for your wonderful response.