41. Fail up and up and up

Recently, I turned 45.

When I was 8 I wanted to be a scientist. The two things I knew about scientists were 1) they wore white lab coats and 2) they used a key card to get into buildings. I knew this from watching movies.

An 8 year-old scientist would be a phenomenon. A 45 year-old scientist is just a scientist. What I’m saying here is, no one is impressed by a 45 year-old doing anything. Whatever you are at 45 is pretty much what you’re supposed to be.

When I was 13 I had a very clear idea of how my life was going to unfold. I’d get married at 24. Have my first kid at 26. Second kid at 30. I met my first wife when I was 18, putting me in a great position to hit those targets. When we didn’t get married for 9 years I figured I still had a punter’s chance.

Here’s how the next 15 years of my life went:

  • separated at 29

  • divorced at 33

  • married again at 34

  • separated at 40

  • divorced at 43

In 1785 the Scottish poet Robert Burns penned an ode to a terrified mouse whose house he’d just overturned with a plough. What starts as a whimsical apology pivots to a rumination on the very nature of existence, delivering one of the most important lines in all of English literature:

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley,

152 years later John Steinback would borrow it to title his Depression-era novel about how, to quote Oliver Burkeman, “the future will never provide the reassurance you seek from it.”

Let’s talk about failure.

When I got married I didn’t think I’d get divorced. Not the first time, and not the second time. I won’t say no one gets married thinking that, because obviously some people do.

I talk about divorce a lot because I think such a regular human occurrence should be normalised. Same way I talk about falling in love with men or eating ice cream for dinner. It happens.

The other reason I talk about divorce is it’s a pretty useful way to reframe what we think about failure, specifically what we think failure is.

If you’re not currently in a relationship, 100% of your relationships have ended. To this crowd-pleasing, feel-good sentiment I’ll add, if you are in a relationship right now and it’s your second, 50% have ended. Third? 66%.

And then, in a move historians will one day call “a real point maker”, I’ll ask, does it make sense to talk about something as complex as relationships in terms of success and failure when most of us, at best, will “fail” in over half of them?

If you’ve watched Jiro Dreams of Sushi, and aren’t a sociopath, I’m sure you were struck by the employee who, for three solid years, does nothing but make tamagoyaki, the wonderfully soft egg omelette that forms one of the first courses.

Every day, omelettes. Every single day. For three years. The day Jiro finally tells him this is how I would have made it, our egg hero sits in the small hallway behind the restaurant and cries.

I’m not comparing marriage to making an omelette, even before you get to the whole breaking a lot of eggs bit. But I am saying relationships are one of the few things we seem to think we’re supposed to be good at right away. How do I know this? The fact we’re still surprised when they end.

Relationships aren’t practice for future relationships, except of course they are. How could they not be? Everything you do is practice for some version of you in the future doing it. So why don’t we call failure, practice?

One reason might be that, at least in the context of relationships, this makes you sound like a sociopath. Go around telling people they’re practice rounds and frankly, you deserve whatever happens to you.

And yet, arguably, it’s stranger still to treat every relationship as a unique and therefore self-contained occurrence. To be like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, unable to break the spell of a coin continuously coming down heads, only to surmise they must be “a spectacular indication of the principle that each individual coin spun individually is as likely to come down heads as tails”, and therefore is no surprise when it does.

To try is to fail. After 45 years my list of “successes” is a small pond, my continuous and necessary “failures” a vast stupid ocean. I’ve failed so much, in so many ways, to such a consistent degree, I’m sometimes shocked I’ve accomplished anything at all.

This isn’t some “business leader reveals their worst failures” bullshit. I have, by most metrics, failed at almost everything I’ve ever tried, and continue to fail at most things I attempt, IF, again, the purpose of any action is the completion of that action in only one, specific way.

And what this newsletter presupposes is, what if it isn’t?

We know from our friend the egg man and Gladwell’s Failure for Dummies that you have to not do a thing the right way a lot before you can do it well.

So what makes something a practice run and something a failed attempt? Intention? Context? It couldn’t be, I mean it just couldn’t be, some arbitrary metric used to qualify our behaviour for social and monetary gain. That would be ridiculous. It can’t be that if one day you succeed you get to call all previous attempts training, and if you don’t you just failed a lot.

That can’t be it, because then a lot of people would probably feel terrible about their lives, the barren fields that are, again by necessity, almost all endeavour. We’d only celebrate people who had already triumphed, and endlessly mock anyone who was still trying. Unless of course, they triumphed. Then we’d reassess their lives to place proper emphasis on all the practice they’d done.

Modern businesses like to make a thing about embracing failure. Learning from failure. But the main thing you’re meant to learn is how not to fail again.

That’s like a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step so let’s just get to the end everybody let’s do it heck let’s skip all the steps yes success winning yes.

It’s bad for business and just as bad for when you’ve put years into being with someone and now even holding hands feels like a bridge too far, you’ve run out of careful words and are hurling fists of dust that sound like sentences from the moon, carrying every hard moment on your back like rocks to the top of a mountain, to a volcano where the only logical step is to throw them all in, throw yourself in, down to the centre through the deepest pain imaginable and let it all burn, burn, burn, until you can crawl out of its guts scrambling for air, for light, for the earth to just hold you, for the trees to gift a shadow, for you to try, always trying, to try again, and again, and again.