Fail better.

A recent text exchange with my sister sums up my year:

Me : …I did not get an interview for [insert college physics teaching job].

Sis: The one it seemed impossible you would be passed over for?

Me: That’s the one.

Years ago, a less-experienced me was invited to apply for the same position; this time, I didn’t even make the interview cut. I also interviewed twice for the same position at a college that did not offer, although I was the committee’s first choice. I emerged from meeting the president in the final round at yet another college reeling as from a bad dream. In July, I gave a promising job application my all and nailed the interview; I was a finalist, but nope. In August, desperate for work, I passed a pair urine-soaked blue jeans tossed into the grime-caked “landscaping” of the building where I would be teaching. That storied establishment also turned me down.

As my physics employment possibilities waned, my writing career seemed ready to take off. I queried a slew of literary agents about representing my first novel, and over twenty asked to read it, a strong response. Over the next several months, eighteen turned me down, one stopped returning my emails, and one had such a different vision for the novel that I knew she could not represent it. I pulled the book from the last agent’s hands and began another revision. Back to square one.

I keep remembering, with resentment, Beckett’s famous quote: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Easy for him to say; he clearly succeeded.

The few times I tried discussing my impressive string of failures with friends, I witnessed how hated is that word. You haven’t failed, they assured me. That weird president had it in for you; the other candidate had more experience; an agent match is so personal, so arbitrary. These may be true, but they aren’t helpful. A focus on the reasons obscures the effect. One friend, so desperate to avoid the word, said, “It’s not failure, it’s….[pause to think] rejection.” I watched her realize that wasn’t much better. 

Failure is not a dirty word. It’s nothing more than: you try something, it doesn’t work out. It is the friction between what we want and what we get. It is, basically, the definition of dukkha.

Not able to face the dukkha, I tried instead to comfort myself by pointing to my friends’ explanations about circumstance. Deeper than that, I can point to my lower-class, downwardly-mobile background, exacerbated by abuse, which hobbled my self-esteem and has always made earning money seem like something that happened to other people. I can point to my inclination to disengage from the world, the same tendency that attracts me to Buddhism. And there are the inevitable bumps associated with a career transition from physics to writing. And so on.

But these are all reasons, and reasons are not the foundation for happiness. Understanding my situation is not satisfying me. Not sure what would, I picked up Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance. I’ve never gravitated toward the book, not because I don’t believe in radical acceptance, but because I didn’t believe I needed it. I am not particularly hard on myself, and I dealt with my acute self-hatred years ago, in therapy. But Brach made me realize that I just haven’t faced a lot of professional rejection. Historically, I lose more than I win, but I win enough. I went to a fancy school, and that experience still pays prestige dividends twenty years later. I finished a PhD and landed a cush post-doc (more fancy schools). As Brach points out, the “flip side of the trance” of unworthiness, as she dubs that delusion, is pride, the need for the “reassurance of feeling special or superior.” The flip side is harder to see as a problem than the naked shame. But my answers to her diagnostic questions (“Am I critical of myself for having obsessive thoughts?”, “Do I feel disgusted with myself if I eat too much?”…) were almost all yes.

These feelings are part of being in form. The Buddha recognized how the world buffets us via the “eight worldly winds“: gain and loss, fame and disrepute, praise and blame, pleasure and pain. 

What I need right now in lieu of understanding is stupidly simple, but I cannot remember to do it most of the time: Feel it. Don’t wallow in the mental chatter about why a failure happened (a defense) or what it means (a distraction), just feel it in the body. I love when the teacher Philip Moffitt quotes his teacher, Ajahn Sumedho: “This moment is like this.” Tara Brock’s invitation is the same: “accept the anguish”.

Not getting what I want is like this.

Disappointment is like this.

Humiliation is like this.

Frustratingly, this instruction is not going to get me a secure job, enough money, an agent, an interview with Oprah. It does not lead to praise, fame, gain, and pleasure. But when I do remember to do it, I inch toward happiness. The solution to my happiness cannot rely on ignoring my desires; that will not make them go away (I’ve tried). And it certainly cannot rely on getting what I want; that is not in my control. What is in my control is how I meet it. Failure feels like this. I can feel it and feel it until I recognize: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.