There are two things that this tweet reinforces for me:
- Using the word ‘great’ 3 times in one tweet does not show off my vocabulary skills at their best.
- That failure is not an end but a beginning, and a “profound” one at that.
Some background first: I tweeted the above during the 2018 Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute (MSSI) Annual Oration. Given on 20 November by Professor Lars Coenen the lecture, entitled ‘Resilience in the Face of Sustainability Crises: Is Innovation the Problem or the Solution’, was an enjoyably thought-provoking event.
During his oration, Professor Coenen touched on failure – and the things it can teach us – as part of innovation process.
Kate Auty, Chair of the MSSI Advisory Board and MC for the evening, picked up on this during the Q & A, and I especially liked the wording Kate used: “a profound place to start.”
There is a growing trend to encourage people to embrace their failures more, to not be embarrassed by them or in denial of them but to acknowledge and welcome them as a chance to grow. I heartily approve of this, BUT to truly learn from our failures – to find that profound starting place they can lead us to – we must go beyond merely acknowledging them or turning them into war stories. Shrugging stuff of with cries of “Oh shit! Oh well… tomorrow’s another day” and then hurrying off to get drunk won’t do. The growth comes from having the humility and developing the capacity to reflect deeply.
I have been meditating on some favourite lines of poetry recently:
“Now that my ladder’s gone
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
These are from W.B. Yeats’ The Circus Animals’ Desertion, and speak to a need to find inspiration, especially at the moment when inspiration seems to have dried up.
“I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last being but a broken man
I must be satisfied with my heart…”
In our failures, with our egos bruised and our thinking in disarray, the experience of our failed projects can feel very raw. The potential for gains in status, finances, career advancement, or personal triumph are all stripped away – we are pared back to the bare essentials of our self, our hurt and failing self. The ladder we were climbing to better and brighter things has gone.
The foul rag and bone shop of the heart may not be a place filled with things that are shiny or lovely, but it is filled with stuff nevertheless – the rags and bones are remnants of life lived. In Yeats’ poem, he comments that the great and ‘pure’ images in his famous poems grew out of “A mound of refuse or the sweepings of the street” – beauty or meaning can grow out of compost.
If our failures lead us to the rag and bone shop of the heart, then this is a profound place indeed. For it is the place where all ladders start, and where our next attempt at ascendancy can begin.
I have collected a recording of the oration, a follow up extract, and some other information about the evening into a Wakelet collection. Just click here if you would like to look.