Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Fail Harder

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Some years ago, Julia, one of Tim's two awesome daughters, participated in 12, a year-long experimental training program at the Portland offices of the ad agency Wieden + Kennedy (the program is a fascinating educational model: collaborative, creative, project-based, conscientious, and inspiring).  The exhortation to "Fail Harder" has become the informal motto of the program.  Of course it cleverly inverts the concept of "trying harder." But the motto is getting at more than that.  It's not enough to take a risk, as we are often told, or even to fail a little bit in your quest for success.  You have to fail harder than that.  In 2006 Julia and her collaborators created a mural out of a zillion push-pins, the "Fail Harder" wall, at W+K.  The elegant script conjures the motto's inversion of traditional inspirational sayings; the text is created by the negative space left by the dense surface of pushpins.  The pushpins exemplify both sheer work (you can watch them pushing all those pins in here) and the reimagining of objects for new ends; both are essential components of creativity. 

I've had "Fail Harder" on my mind this month because I've picked up a couple activities that I haven't done for about 20 years: ballet and cello.  N. asked to start a weekly ballet class in January (which he loves!) and inspired me to seek out adult ballet classes.  (I took ballet for ten years but stopped at age 15 as my interests shifted and the level of commitment required became too high.)  Now, although I am surprised at how much I actually remember, every class is a huge struggle, physically and mentally.  I fumble through the combinations of steps, trying to remember what comes next, trying to make my body assume these strange postures.  Of course I fail at all kinds of things in my daily private life, like putting away my laundry, but in general what I do publicly -- teaching and writing -- I do very well.  In ballet classes, I am failing harder, publicly, often in front of the very students who have struggled in my literature classes.  It's humbling.

Similarly, I am playing my cello this semester in a student chamber ensemble on campus because my violinist friend who coaches the student musicians had no student cellist who could participate.  As the only cello, I blunder through Bach, totally exposed for all to hear (though fortunately the continuo is often doubled by the bass and harpsichord!).  I have played my cello very infrequently since N. was born, and even at the height of my playing (in high school), I almost never had the opportunity to play in ensembles.  So I am out of practice and inexperienced.  Every week in rehearsal I publicly confront the limits of my ability.

As I fail harder in ballet and cello, I watch how the students dancing or playing alongside me handle the prospect of failure.  For example, some of the male athletes in Beginning Ballet rise to the challenge of a different physical discipline, working seriously to grasp the movements, while others retreat from it into jokes and ironic detachment.  All of them are voluntarily taking the class, but as athletes who define themselves by their physical prowess, some of them can't make the humiliation of failing at a physical activity a productive experience.

As an over-scheduled overachiever in high school I was involved in a zillion activities and I tried hard to do them all well.  Once I got to college, I deliberately ended all my extra-curriculars so I could devote myself to studying literature, something I both loved and was very good at.  It felt like an immense luxury to focus intently on one subject.  Now I have the opposite luxury of working at disciplines (music and dance) that I love but that I will never be particularly good at.  I hope as I fail harder in these realms that I regain sympathy for students who struggle in my field, that I learn to foster my students' productive failures, and that I learn to fail harder in my literary work.


Anonymous said...

"All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."
Samuel Beckett, Worstward Ho (1983)

Fanny Harville said...

Love it, E! But is there a difference between failing "harder" and "better" I wonder?

Anonymous said...

There is most likely a difference between Beckett's aesthetic of failure (a painstaking interrogation of the relation betw. referent and representation) and what the ad agency is exhorting its employees to achieve for its clients, yes. Probably wouldn't go over very well if they started saying things like, "There is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express." Still, I would bet that at least some of the creative people working there sympathize with B.'s notion that "to be an artist is to fail, as no other dare fail, that failure is his world and the shrink from it desertion, art and craft, good housekeeping, living" (Three Dialogues, 1949). But as there are bills to pay...

Fanny Harville said...

"There is nothing to express..." would be an pretty funny un-ad campaign!