This American Life (ruined my life for like an hour)
My wife loves to listen to This American Life.
It’s a brilliant show, perfect for canoe rides. I fish while she lies back tanning and listening to the show on her phone. She fishes too, mind you — and often she catches more than I do.
If you’ve never listened to This American Life, and you want to get super hopeful or depressed about the state of this world, let me just take a moment to recommend it to you. A host retells amazing stories mixed in with interviews from the people involved and it always contains extraordinary circumstances or events. It’s brilliant.
One episode we listened to detailed a psychologist who ran a test for sociopathology and psychopathology on a bunch of certifiably crazy prisoners and then on a bunch of CEO’s and businessmen. Ironically enough, the two groups tested very similarly. There was one notable difference. The CEO’s had a spin.
They called failures – opportunities.
They called weaknesses – growth initiatives.
They called manipulating people to get what you want – guiding them in the right direction that just happened to be their own.
This episode certainly had me wondering if I was a psychopath for wanting to be successful some day (see what I mean about throwing your world for a loop?) but eventually (an hour or two later) I got over this. It’s not crazy to want to succeed. It’s actually pretty natural. But what this episode really did for me was illustrate the power of a word. Why was it so important for these hyper-successful people to change their vocabulary?
And that got me wondering about the meaning of the word failure.
“Words Matter A Great Deal, You Should Care About Them More” – F. Underwood
Failure, in regards to dreams, means creating a goal and falling short of it. Now, sometimes this goal has a limited time span. Going to the summer Olympics. Making the Varsity team. Getting into Harvard.
But more often than not, our goals are less time-oriented. Opening a business. Buying a personal zoo. Becoming a writer.
In the more time-oriented way, failure has a pretty simple meaning. It means time ran out. We only have so much of it, and we can only shove so much effort in a limited space. But for the latter… failure means something completely different.
You see, I think there are only two kinds of failure in these much more common situations when a small window isn’t the issue..
Either you’re in the first category, and you fail because you quit.
You decide that your dream is too hard to achieve. You tell yourself that you’re just not good enough or that time is the problem. You say you got busy, that you had to refocus. All of these are just different ways to say you quit.
But the second category of failure makes the first kind look silly. You fail because you changed what success meant when you got scared.
Because quitting isn’t really quitting if you just change the rules and goals. I didn’t really want THAT job. I just wanted something like it. It’s not like I need to paint as a PROFESSION, selling a painting is enough. Going to South Dakota is enough world travelling for me. I don’t really need to set foot on another continent.
You Can Be Anything You Want To Be, As Long As You Want It More Than Breathing
Now, before I go further, let me clarify something. I am terrible at art. Just terrible at it. And it’s not like I couldn’t do an okay job or be a pretty passable artist if I spent every day drawing from now until 30 years from now (maybe 60 years is more accurate) — but the truth is I’d probably never be that great at art.
Because the most important thing that no one will ever tell you is that you can be anything you want to be, as long as you want it more than breathing.
I don’t mean that figuratively. I mean you need to spend every day thinking about it. Every day practicing at it. To be truly good at something, really very good at it, you need to devote most everything you have to it. Because if you don’t want it more than you want air, someone else wants it more. If all you can manage is a little guitar practice every other day, you’re not going to turn into Steve Vai. That fire in your belly, the drive to succeed that is so much more powerful than any fear of failure, that’s what you need to get good at something. Being okay (or even good) at it in the first place is just a more-advanced starting point.
When I realized this a few months ago, I realized I needed to make a new habit. So for the last two months, I’ve woken up every weekday at 5am, arrived at a local coffee shop at 6am, and started writing for two hours before work. And every night before I go to bed, I try to read for an hour or so before I fall asleep. If I want to be a writer, these are the habits I need to do it well.
If you consider the cannon of successful human beings in the world — there is one thing that every single one of them has in common. By definition, they didn’t quit. They didn’t give up or change what success meant. They pressed on despite everything that stood in their way and they refused to let anything stop them. They all worked harder than they thought was possible.
You see, the truth is — if you’re going to fail at something, the least you can do is fail because you’re awful.
What I’m trying to say is this: don’t sell yourself short. If you want to be good at something, develop those habits. I know I’m trying right there with you. Work harder than you knew was possible. Think about it when you can’t work on it and work on it when you can’t think about it any longer without making progress. Make it a part of your daily routine. Commit to it in a way you never imagined possible. Give it everything you’ve got.
That way — if it all falls apart, you can look back and truly say you gave it your all. You won’t need an excuse if it doesn’t work out. You won’t need to convince yourself you failed because of this or that and you won’t need to redefine your dreams. You can just admit that you’re very best simply wasn’t enough. But if you really do this, if you really apply the time it takes to get very good at something, if you really drive at it with all you have and want it more than breathing… I have a feeling you won’t fail.
You’ll take that word and change it. You’ll call it a detour when you don’t make the kind of progress you hoped for and you’ll redouble your efforts. You won’t give in because that’s even more insane than anything else. You won’t stop breathing and you won’t stop working at what you love.
If you do that — if you apply all that time and effort into your dream — ‘not enough effort’ won’t be the reason you failed.
And if you ask me, I’d rather fail because I’m terrible, not because I didn’t try hard enough.