I made the sweater in the picture at the top about six months ago. And to me (and to all my family and my friends who were asked to judge it’s beauty) it was an abject failure. It’s actually much uglier in person than it is in pictures. The back is bright purple and there is a strip of light mauve on the bottom left panel. After these pictures were taken I actually redid the band one more time in a raspberry which improved it, but did not de-uglify it.
My (incredibly loving and supportive) fella actually said “Felicia, you make so many beautiful things. Please just throw that one in the bin and start again. It’s so ugly. You can’t inflict that on someone.”
Now the failure wasn’t for lack of trying. I tried, and I tried, to make it work. I pulled different parts out over and over again in an attempt to make a beautiful scrap sweater. And yet, I couldn’t get it to work. I ripped for joy, and tried again, and still no joy.
Now I’m a big fan of failing. Failing means I have tried something hard, something that is a stretch for me, and that I’ve hit the edges of what I’m capable of in that moment, under those circumstances. That’s not to say that I enjoy failure in the moment of the failure because I often don’t. In the moment I feel the prickles of shame, frustration or anger run up on the back of my neck….. But then I consciously make the choice to find the lessons and the joy in the failure.
It’s a choice I’ve practiced over many years. To consciously feel joy about being wrong. Because – and here is the magic part - when we have failed we have learnt something, and as such we are smarter than we once were. This is not a reframing where we are trying to make a pile of elephant dung be a cookie. But rather it is a cookie, that upon first glance can look like elephant dung. What’s failed is failed - it’s done - so why would we not look for the joy in learning the lessons we’ve learnt??
Failure is a teaching tool; we always learn from what we did, even if what we simply learnt is not to do the same thing again*. This process of try and fail and try again, can be incredibly satisfying and informative…. but this is conditional upon us being able to see failure for what it is. We need to take our cultural conditioning and our judgement out of the game. We need to learn to allow the failure not to mean anything about us. We need to not take our failures personally but rather that we see them as opportunities for growth.
So back to the ugly cardy - even after all my years of knitting and combining colours and my effort I couldn’t make it work. And so I quit trying, and simply called it done. And I learnt some lessons.
I learnt that sometimes I can’t force it to work.
I learnt that I can’t really combine flat colours with heathers and make them sing in a way I would like.
I learnt that slightly different weights need to be combined using different stitches.
I learnt that sometimes an ugly yarn is simply an ugly yarn.
I learnt that while someone else may have been able to make it work, I couldn’t with what I know at this moment.
I learnt that to keep trying was just making me feel worse.
And so I quit. A noble and valid choice.
When I’ve talked about failure on the blog in the past I’ve had lovely kind humans commenting that I shouldn’t be so hard on myself – that I shouldn’t talk of myself in that way. That I shouldn’t call myself a failure and put myself down.
I find this line of thinking really interesting because I don’t see talking about a failure as putting myself down at all. I was calling my work in that instance a failure. I don’t see my failure as a reflection of my worth.
We have a cultural narrative about quitting that is tied up with the idea of failure. We don’t quit. We keep going. We don’t allow ourselves to fail (or to quit) because we must keep trying and trying until we succeed. Being quitters means that we are weak minded losers. Being quitters equates to being a failure. But this narrative is bullshit.
This wasn’t always my attitude towards failure. I’ve learnt how to better think about it through my personal experience with failure.
A long time ago I was once a young human who had always done extremely well at school. So well in fact that I managed to haul myself into a spot at one of Australia’s best universities. And it was there that I failed. More than once.
Failed! For the first time in my previously easy academic life, I failed, and I didn’t know what to do. School had come easy to me you see, and so when I failed I didn’t know quite what it meant. About me or my future or my potential. You see, I had never learnt about failure and I had never practiced failure. I had never thought about failure as something that was possible for me.
Figuring out how I thought about and understood failure took me years to muddle through.
In retrospect it’s easy to see what happened, why I failed. I had just moved to the big city by myself at 17. I was a little lonely and totally unclear what I wanted. And one of my clever techniques when I was afraid of failure and uncertain was “avoidance” as a life strategy. And so, when I knew that I hadn’t done the work I needed to to pass the exam, rather than pulling out of the subject (as that would be admitting failure) I simply didn’t show up to the exam.
Ahhh the craziness of youth. Anyway after failing and failing again, I decided to take a year off uni and reset. I took my full time job at the local supermarket and for a year I clocked in and clocked off for my 40 hour week. And I got very very bored.
So I quit. Again. By this time I was 20 years old with no plans, no degree and now no job. Some phone calls to my family lead me to understand that there was some :-) concern about the quitting and the failure and the uncertainty. There was some suggestion that the quitting in itself was a failure.
And yet to me it became clear that it wasn’t about failure or quitting but rather it was an opportunity for growth. I was the kind of person that learns best by doing. I couldn’t learn anything about what I wanted without trying all the things. Trying fumbling around with uni studying things I didnt enjoy, working full time in a supermarket,, trying traveling with no money, trying blagging my way into jobs in cities I didn’t know. Without the failing and the trying and the quitting my life wouldn’t look how it does now. All of these experiences were critically informative learning.
As Greg McKeown says in Essentialism, we quit things all the time. We must quit, and we must fail if we are to allow ourselves to grow and evolve. For example we aren’t still doing ballet or learning the organ or sucking our thumbs, like we did when we were small. We aren’t still annoying the shit out of our brother, and taking jokes way to far, as we aren’t 10 years old anymore. We are also not 20 or 30 or 40. And as such I am no longer a ballet dancer, a ceramicist, a land surveyor, a GIS practicioner, a checkout chick, a smoker, a big social drinker, a super-annoying big sister, a white-liar, a market researcher, a worrier, a non-exerciser or someone who is terrified of heights. We’ve allowed ourselves to evolve through our failure and our quitting. And sometimes through our success.
I have tried and failed and practiced and got better and tried and failed again. And that is how I have learnt to appreciate failing. Because each time I fail - especially in my making - I learn something that I couldn’t have learnt without the failure. The potential for failure is about butting up against the edges of what works so we can see what doesn’t.
Sometimes failing is the only way we can learn what we need to learn. About life and about craft.
Playing in the middle is safe and comfortable and comforting but it isn’t where the magic is. Think about the works of craft that you admire; the things you have made, and the things other people have made, and think about what you love. For me the things I love most are the things that surprise me, the things that shoudn’t work but do. The things that break the rules, and in breaking them come up with new rules. This kind of craft can only happen when we try to butt up against the edges of what works and maybe even cross those lines. And to do that we must step into the uncertainty of not knowing and accept the possibility of total failure.
For me? My most cherished makes are those that I have made by sitting in uncertainty, which means I need actively practicing working with my potential to fail. In order to make the projects that sing we have to also make projects that suck.
How do you feel about failure? Is it something you flirt with? You abore? Or you roll around in? Have you got better at it over time. Please tell me your stories!
* Like cutting out fabric after two glasses of wine late at night. A lesson I need to relearn at least once a year - which has taught me another important and useful lesson about myself. I’m a woman who needs reminding.