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The Art of Failure February 8, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, drama.
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A few weeks ago I finished reading Malcolm Gladwell’s What the Dog Saw, a collection of his New Yorker essays. WTDS is different than Gladwell’s first three books, Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, and it’s a better read and better food for thought than the more recent two. There are many good essays in WTDS, “Blowing Up”, “Connecting the Dots”, “Late Bloomers”. But the one that made the biggest impression on me and which will stay with me the longest is “The Art of Failure,” which looks and how and why people fail when the stakes are high.

In this little vignette, Gladwell makes a distinction between “panicking” (panicing? that doesn’t look right) and “choking.” Panicking is what happens when your mind goes blank and you start doing random stupid things. Novices panic. People who are in a situation for the first time panic. Choking is overthinking. Thinking about things that should come naturally and fluidly such that they come awkwardly and haltingly. Professionals choke. People who have been in a situation hundreds of times choke when the stakes are raised on that situation. Gladwell gives JFK Jr.’s small plane crash as an example of panicking (Jr. had no experience with flying in bad weather, flying at night, or instrument landings and had to do all three for the first time together) and Jana Novotna’s Wimbledon loss to Steffi Graf as an example of choking (Novotna was up handily and blew her lead because she was in awe of the moment and of Graf). Choking is the “higher” form of failure. The more sympathetic form. But in many ways the more twisted and painful form. Fascinating.

WARNING: self-flagellation ahead. Children, people over the age of 60, and women who are pregnant or may become pregnant may wish to quit reading now. If you are taking nitrates for chest pains, consult your doctor before continuing to read. Continued reading may result in headaches, nausea, blurred vision, painful urination, and certain sexual side effects. Erections lasting longer than four hours require immediate medical attention.

The reason this essay stuck with me is that I have a somewhat unhealthy relationship with my failures, past and future. I spend an inordinate amount of conscious thought (and probably a significant amount of sub-conscious thought as well) analyzing and re-analyzing past failures and attempting to diagnose and avoid impending ones. It’s a wonderful way to be. I recommend it. It’s like going to Disney World, if you are someone who really hates Disney World.

Now I have a fun new self-analysis game. Here it is. Many of the failures that have troubled me most, both as they were happening and afterwards, have been failures to think my way out of, through, or around a problem. The stakes usually aren’t high other than in my own mind. Also, no one is watching other than me. This was just me alone, trying to come up with an idea or an approach and just getting nowhere. When this happens, my mind starts to race, jumping from thought to thought, essentially it panics. But when it happens, I also think not only about the problem itself but about my way of thinking about it. In other words, rather than just thinking (which presumably should come naturally given that the problem is in my domain of expertise) I think about thinking. And I think about the fact that I am thinking about thinking. And this is the definition of choking. So, what is happening during those times? Am I choking? Am I panicking? Am I choking on my panic? Choking on my panic about choking? I can’t figure it out. I can’t even tell which conclusion I would prefer. Then again, when this happens maybe I am not choking or panicking. Maybe I am just reaching the end of the internet.

NEXT UP: a self-flagellatory review of “The New Boy Network.”

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