Monday, April 23, 2012

When all else fails

"If you don't feel free enough to fail, you can't passably succeed."

I love moments that I can quote. I love the feeling of sitting in a room listening to a lecture or watching a play or a movie and silently reaching into my purse to pull out my notebook so I can write down a phrase like the quote above from stage director and theater awesome-everything-man Frank Galati. Just the feeling of putting the words down in my notebook is like etching them into my heart. Every time I look back at the pages I'm reminded of a little piece of wisdom that I would have otherwise forgotten.

This particular piece of advice had me feeling very inspired, not because it was necessarily uplifting in any way, but because it knocked me on the side of the head just a bit.

The reason that I felt so wonderful after hearing these words was that in general, and today specifically, I've been constantly met with moments of failure, of being dejected, of wanting to cry rather than put myself in harm's way again.

I woke up this morning as I would any other morning, half asleep and staring at the clock on my phone to remind myself that I had to get up within the next half hour. Through the lethargy, I decided to scroll through my emails on my phone. It's not a daily routine, but it's one method of waking myself up when I can barely open my eyes otherwise.

A message from my TA saying there are no office hours. An email I'd labeled "unread" so I could look at it again in the morning. Then a response to an email I'd sent to a professor to check on a quote he'd made which would be used in a news article I was fact-checking. I could see a little bit of this message next to the subject line and it didn't seem friendly. Uh-oh.

To my first email asking him if his quote was accurate, he'd tried to alter it. "What about this instead?" I sat on the suggestion for a little while, but finally wrote back explaining that we couldn't change quotes, that we were only responsible for making sure whether or not they were accurate.

When I opened my email this morning, I had received a response saying "I am not comfortable with your tone. lets forget the whole thing" [sic]. I re-read my email to him, shocked that I could have offended someone in such a way with what I thought was a respectful request of confirmation. I was not changed in my opinion of my note.

With a few assessments by friends and family, I came to the conclusion that the issue wasn't on my part. The professor who had omitted capitalization and an apostrophe in "let's" was inexplicably angered about the concept of being correctly quoted in an article.

But it was terrible how badly the feeling of failure affected me. When I received the email, my first thought was not that he was being rude to me as I attempted to do my job, it was that I had somehow done something horribly wrong and needed to repent.

After I read the email, I started to write a response. Phrases like "so very sorry" and "never meant to offend" were thrown around. Then I came to the end of the message, and I realized I couldn't think of what to say to fix the situation. There really was no fix. My original intention was honorable and good and a sycophantic apology wasn't going to solve anything.

There are moments like this, when you encounter someone who takes what you say out of context and makes you feel badly about their misunderstanding, that failure becomes a cop-out for something much greater.

But when you start assuming that you need to fix what has happened according to someone else's over-sensitivity and wrongful analysis of your words, that's not at all a way of bettering yourself. It's a way of weakening yourself.

A lot of Galati's talk was about the strength of being a theater director, of being able to set forth your ideas and lead a crowd. But he also talked about being willing to accept defeat and being humbled by the mistakes you've made, allowing them to make you into a better person.

The key to this argument is figuring out how to separate what you've done wrong and when you've been wronged. Just because you've been accused of an egregious error doesn't imply that it was actually your fault. If you start dwelling on those things, your failure won't allow you to succeed in the future, it will just bog you down.

I sat in an auditorium today listening to three incredibly successful theater artists speak about their profession. When they spoke their words of wisdom, I thought about its own applicability to my life.

The truth is that I am open to failure. I recognize that not all situations are mine to win, and I gear myself up early for defeat. But sometimes the follow-through isn't always perfect. Sometimes I get shrouded in the feeling of shielding myself that I lose sight of what actually is right or wrong.

That's what happened with the professor. In the face of embarrassment and failure, I immediately retreated and was ready to sell my soul to him in exchange for his forgiveness. But this wasn't the kind of failure that Galati was referring to.

The failure worth having is the kind that enlightens you for the future. If I had taken the gut advice after I had been met with complaints, I would have dug myself into another hole of forcing myself into an inferior position through apology.

It's important to learn to accept when you've made a mistake, but the condition is that you accept on the basis of its truth. If I had written a rude message requesting a confirmation of a quote, I would have deserved an angry response. That is when a profuse apology would be warranted.

If I had unintentionally insulted or provoked the professor, my failure in my dealings with him would have allowed me to be enlightened, to learn better ways to handle that same situation in the future. But in reality I didn't fail, and this little nugget of wisdom a few hours later in the day was the necessary reminder to keep me feeling like I ever needed to shoot myself in my own foot.

To mix aphorisms, I might say "when all else fails, try and try again." But that would be wrong. The truth is, when all else fails, re-examine the situation and decide if the failure was your fault at all. If it was, fix it. If it wasn't, don't take responsibility. If anything will help you succeed, it's that.

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