Failure and Love

About eight years ago I decided to try gardening. There were raspberries growing in the back yard of our Minneapolis city lot, in a fenced-in area with a brick path down the center. (Previous owners of the house had done some quality landscaping.) On one side of the path where no raspberries were growing, I tilled the ground and planted rows of vegetables. The refreshing spring breeze, the earthy fragrance of the soil, my own enthusiasm and hopes of fresh food from my yard combined to skyrocket my mood into bliss.

Well, that season – and a few seasons afterwards – I was the very model of a “three-day monk.” It may have crossed my mind to water my seeds or pull up weeds, but after a few days, I mostly neglected my garden. My enthusiasm was sapped and I had no habits in place to keep me going.

Needless to say, I failed at gardening in those seasons. But I did learn a few things the first season – mainly, that a sunny spot is imperative for a vegetable garden (my spot was not sunny enough), and so is regular watering and weeding.

Each successive spring, fresh enthusiasm compelled me to plan and plant again; and each year, I had a bit more knowledge and experience and willingness to work at gardening. This spring, thanks to my work over the past few years, we have already been eating asparagus, black raspberries, currants, mulberries, rhubarb, peas, greens, and various fresh herbs from our yard, with plenty more to come throughout the growing season.

I tried and failed at something else once. I wanted to learn pottery. How cool to be able to create something beautiful yet functional! I loved the idea. I took one community education pottery class and made some decent pieces, but overall, I didn’t learn well (the teacher even lost patience with me for my failure to understand how to use the wheel!), and while I had loved the idea, I couldn’t really connect with the activity itself.

Like gardening, I could continue working at pottery, gaining knowledge and experience, until I have attained some basic mastery of the field. But taking that one class was enough for me to know that pottery was not for me.

What was the difference? Both gardening and pottery are creative and useful endeavors that must be learned and practiced to be mastered. I failed at both (actually, I failed more at my first attempt at gardening than my first attempt at pottery). And yet, I have kept gardening but never given pottery another serious thought.

The obvious but important answer is that I really want to garden – I really enjoy it – and I don’t enjoy pottery. In other words, for the love of the thing. Each growing season, I get excited to grow things! But I’ve never wanted to try pottery again.

I couldn’t be sure I loved gardening and not pottery until I had tried them both. When pottery was just an idea in my head, I loved it. When it became an experience I was actively learning and practicing, I couldn’t find any love for the actuality of pottery in my life. But although I mostly failed in my early attempts at learning and practicing gardening, I actually enjoyed the activity, and my love for it only grew.

I think these ideas are important as we think about who we are and what we want to do with our lives. We’ve heard that failure is useful for learning, and is actually necessary for ultimate success (I like this “Accidental Creative” podcast on the topic), but probably equally important is a basic drive, a fundamental love of the thing itself.

And I don’t think this love will always feel positive. Failure is real and sometimes devastating. By some measures, I have only ever “failed” as a singer/songwriter. For fifteen years, I’ve been writing songs, performing and recording them, trying to sell albums and get gigs. And for all that, my “harvest” feels a bit like my early gardening attempts – a handful of pea pods, maybe some undergrown spinach leaves, a couple raspberries.

But I keep doing it. Sometimes “the love of the thing” feels more like banging my head against a wall than gleefully chasing something I adore. But it’s love all the same. No matter the outcome, I must sing and I must write, if only just for my own emotional health and enjoyment.

As with my gardening experience, I am finding there is plenty more experience and skill to be gained as a singer/songwriter.

I’m also learning that my initial starry-eyed definitions of “success” have a way of changing as I work hard at any activity. With gardening, I envisioned myself growing and preserving most of my family’s food supply. As I have learned and worked, however, I’ve discovered this isn’t even something I want anymore. I’ve gained a reasonable understanding of my own capabilities as well as my own interest level and drive, and the place I want gardening to have in my life balanced with all my other commitments and activities.

The same is true of songwriting. I no longer hold vague dreams of stardom. The more I work at my craft, the more realistic I have become about my own capabilities and my own interest level. Through purposefully thinking about and working at this activity, I have better clarified a vision for “success” as it would look in my own real life.

In her book 168 Hours, Laura Vanderkam encourages readers to make a “List of 100 Dreams,” sort-of a “bucket list” – things you want to do or try at some point in your life – and then start making plans to accomplish these dreams. She notes that the very act of trying something may be all you need to discover that you really don’t want to go any further with that activity after all. But if you’d never tried, you may always regret (needlessly) having never done it.

So, I’m glad I tried pottery, fine with failing at it, equally fine with discovering I had no real love for it and laying it aside forever. I’m also glad I tried gardening, fine having failed at it, grateful to discover I loved it and was willing to keep putting in the work – so that today, I can enjoy the fruits of my labors!

What have you learned from failure? Does “love of the thing” keep you going in spite of failure, and do you give yourself permission to quit when you discover you have no love for a certain activity?

3 Comments

  1. “But I keep doing it. Sometimes “the love of the thing” feels more like banging my head against a wall than gleefully chasing something I adore. But it’s love all the same. No matter the outcome, I must sing and I must write, if only just for my own emotional health and enjoyment.”

    That right there is a good explanation of how I feel about writing many (most?) days. I’m miserable doing it, but I’m even more miserable not doing it. Still hoping to grown out of some of that misery or at least earn more tangible benefits for having pushed through it.

    You’ve asked some interesting questions at the end, especially because this morning I woke up from a vivid, sweat-inducing dream in which I was given a very specific diagnosis and told I had one year to live. In my dream, I knew immediately what I needed to do—stop going to school and start spending more time on a book idea that’s been floating around in my head. Probably the best thing for me is to wait awhile before jumping on top of any interpretation of that dream, but I guess I kind of answered your questions before I knew about them.

    Thanks for this very timely post.

  2. Thank you Julia! Your story lends wonderful insights, voicing thoughts that seem common to all of us who are in a life quest for personal purpose, less obstructed by popular opinion and following the herd.

  3. This is a wonderful post. Your honesty was a real encouragement to me. You are absolutely right, the worth of any endeavor is not necessarily found in notable success or failure but in the love of the endeavor itself.

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