in case of failure, revise
There are mornings when you climb sleepily out of bed and drink three cups of coffee as a way to make sure you can face the day. On those days the drinking of the coffee is enough, and you let yourself go forth without the guilt that shows up when morning writing does not. “It’s enough sometimes to be awake,” you think. “It’s enough sometimes to give yourself credit for leaving the house.”
Moments later, you find yourself hopelessly locked between your inner front door and the outer gate that encloses every ground floor brownstone apartment, staring with disbelief at the office keys dangling in your hand. They are of course useless for unlocking either door; your house keys are feet away, inside on the kitchen counter. It is not enough to leave the house when you get stuck before the gate.
If you are me, you call Gwen, who sleepily understands that she is your only hope and climbs out of her boyfriends warm bed and gets on her bike to rescue you. If you were me weeks before, Gwen would be in Hawaii and its possible you’d have died between those doors of starvation or boredom or embarrassment of the time and efforts it would have taken to free you and get you back into your apartment. We all fail, but there’s a certain amount of luck involved in determining how fucked we are in the process.
The most honest thing I’ve ever said is that the only things I fear are failure and swans. I’ve managed to avoid any swans in the last year, but it’s pretty easy to look back to the letter I wrote myself on my 30th birthday and figure out where I otherwise went wrong. It is important to know that I wanted a bunch of things I did not get, that I tried at some and failed, that others weren’t what I wanted them to be. I’d wager that it was a bigger year of failures than any that came before it.
Of course there’s a lesson here, and it goes back to a friend who told me a long time ago that the reason he always dated hot girls was because those were the ones he always went after. Nine times out of ten he failed miserably, but the tenth would go for it, and eventually he’d get the hot girls because they all knew the ones before them had been hot, that this guy had something. The momentum carried itself if you could get over all of the massive fails that happened before it.
It’s fine to fail, someone else once said, but it better make you able to fail smarter. You need to have learned something from that first failure and you had better hope that the teaching isn’t “I’m not good enough.” Sometimes all you learn from the first failure is how to fall better the next time, in increments, with your voice tuned to a calm volume. Fail with some dignity at least.
If I were to come full circle and add some new knowledge to the existing pile, all of which we know to be true but fail in our own ways to heed the advice off, it would be a little piece of wisdom I’ve learned about trying. That is that you have to learn to be really honest with yourself about what effort looks like and whether you’ve really been trying. You cannot look to anyone else for advice on this. Your time is your own and your efforts are yours to account for, and it’s fine to try and to fail and to learn how to fall a little bit better, but the worst thing you can ever do is lie to yourself and say that you are trying if you are not.
If I hadn’t learned while failing that one of the worst things you can do to yourself around a pending birthday is write yourself a letter, I’d write myself one now that acknowledged all of the above. I’d add “but also take your vitamins, stay close to anyone who eats more vegetables than you, and sleep more.” I’d finish it with a simple line: “Try as hard as you would if there were swans chasing you.”
Also, hide a spare set of keys where no one else can find them unless they, too, are stuck.