Failing Forward

I've wanted to get a PhD since before I knew what that meant. Even just two years ago when I applied to PhD programs I still only had a (relatively) sparse understanding of what those programs would be like. I had minimal confidence that I knew what I was doing and a fairly vague idea of what area of research I wanted to pursue. Fortunately, over my first semesters as a graduate student I learned in what area my research passions lie. Unfortunately, it is a different area than the vague idea I had when I started. While my current program is competitive and highly-ranked, there's not active research in the area I am now confident I want to study. (In a decade, though, I predict that will no longer be the case.) I realized I couldn't reasonably expect to remain in this program and achieve my research goals. Now I find myself in the same situation I was two years ago: waiting for responses to my applications for PhD programs.

My circumstances may be similar but this second go-round feels a lot different. I've learned and grown and am a different person now. During these past two years I've gained a better understanding of what graduate studies entail, more confidence, clearer goals, an articulable and focused research objective, and a stronger sense of self, purpose, and my own ambitions. Even in the event that I am not accepted into any of the programs to which I applied, my pursuit of a PhD has improved who I am and, as a more tangible benefit, I also anticipate completing a master's degree by the end of the summer. Although I can now reflect and recognize significant personal growth, for most of my time in my current program I've felt like I was failing.

I spend a lot of time thinking about what in my life I'd do differently if I could. I know some people say they wouldn't do anything differently and I don't know if I actually would (It's a moot point since it's not possible) but I still waste a lot of mental energy on rethinking even the minute details of my past. This is heavily anxiety-inducing, as I tend to quickly escalate from opting not to have had a second cheeseburger to figuring out how a seven-year-old would be able to not only warn the correct people about 9/11 but also effectively convince them to take action based on his mysterious precognition. I'm not going to claim I have "no regrets" from the past two years but I admit the end result is positive even if the path I took was circuitous. I still wonder what it would be like to redo it, starting with the knowledge and abilities I have now and hoping to avoid the pain and struggle—to do it again and feel like I was succeeding.

Intellectually, I understand that the struggle has shaped me but I have difficulty reconciling that with an ingrained belief that avoiding pain would make me happier or at least, less sad. That's why I spend a lot of time considering hypotheticals. That ingrained belief, though, is incorrect. I'm not suggesting that actively seeking pain is the key to happiness but I have plenty of experience trying to avoid it and it's not brought my happiness. Life is a process of growth and learning and that inevitably includes pain. Perhaps my unhappiness over the past two years was only magnified by my attempts to avoid "growing pains."

I've seen this pattern reflected in other areas of my life as well. I like writing, and I frequently think of stories I want to write. Instead of going and writing those stories, I keep them in my head, mulling them over and over and over. I tell myself that thinking about them is "writing" but in reality I'm avoiding actually writing. I suppose I have an ingrained belief that one day they'll be "ready" and will pop out, fully formed and nearly perfect. I want to be a good writer but I have fears—fears that, when I put them in words, seem ludicrous: I fear that my writing won't be good enough for the story I want to tell. I fear that other people won't like it and if I had written it better then they would have been forced to like it because of its innate excellence. I fear that I will be a bad writer.

I used to tell jokes all the time. Almost every word out of my mouth came with the intent to make someone laugh. When I started doing stand-up comedy, joke writing felt natural. When people asked me how I wrote jokes I would tell them that I'd throw 1,000 jokes out and one of them would land and then I'd keep that one. I had to fail 999 times before I had something I felt worked. At some point, though, I forgot this. Ironically, I think it was because I felt more pressure to not fail. I had some positive responses to my jokes and I worried that if I didn't keep writing at some arbitrary caliber it would be a failure. The real failure, though, was that I stopped writing as often. My jokes suffered because I was afraid to tell bad ones.

What I've failed to embrace is that I will be a bad writer. I will tell bad jokes. Then, if I keep doing it, I'll get better. That's what practice is! That's what learning is! Failing, but failing forward. I've known this my entire life. It's Ms. Frizzle's mantra. It's Chumbawamba's anthem. I've known this fact but I'm still learning to accept it and to live it. If I really want to be a better writer, I need to write and get my work out there. I need to seek critical feedback. I NEED TO ACTUALLY WRITE. A comic book writer I admire recently tweeted "Every item you COMPLETE will change you for the better" and that is what I am trying to embrace.

I also need to fight the feeling that showing someone an attempt where I've failed will color their impression of me as a failure and I'll never get beyond that. Even when I went to start writing this post I felt a wave of embarrassment about how I view the quality of my previous posts. I seriously considered deleting all the old posts and starting fresh, covering up my "failures." I worry about a hypothetical future where I'm judged by what I wrote as I was still learning to write but I'm assuring myself now that what I did is not who I was and certainly not who I am now or who I am going to be. I'm going to get better.

I recently started learning how to draw. I noticed my attitude towards learning to draw is completely without the fears I have about writing. I'm learning to draw not because I want to be a great (or even particularly good) artist but because I think it's a useful skill. I'm much more open to failing and drawing something that's really lousy and at times even weirdly proud of my failures. Making failures over and over, though, is not enough in itself. I'm following an online tutorial with a bunch of exercises and it's fairly grueling but it's working. Every exercise is deliberate and has a clear purpose. For most there's a way to judge them myself or an outlet to get feedback so I understand where I need to improve. It's not just practice; it's deliberate practice. That, I think is the difference between failing and failing forward.

I realize my thoughts on failing and failures are probably nothing new to you. Most of the things I wrote down, as I wrote them, felt obvious. What I'm working on, though, is not knowing those things but really accepting them. Failing is not just a part of studying or writing or learning to draw—it's a part of life and of spiritual progression. We all fail. We all make mistakes. We all sin. But through Christ, we have the opportunity to repent. The Atonement provides a way to improve and keep improving. My ingrained beliefs might be inconsequential when it comes to writing stories or blog posts but if the fear of failure prevents spiritual progression then it is spiritually damning. Sometimes, when I think about repenting, I know I want to change something but I also know I'm going to mess up. I feel like this would be "failing" at repenting but the real failure is avoiding the pain of growing.