Permission to Fail

Why I miss college

I’ve been reading a lot of articles about failure lately. I’m not totally sure why they’ve been cropping up on my twitter feed, but it’s probably a sign from the universe. Maybe it has something to do with this whole mercury-in-retrograde situation. Who’s to say?

Anyway, I came across this great video that I had seen before, assigned in an intro to fiction writing class in college.

It was a good thing to read in a fiction writing class because college-freshman fiction is garbage, and you need to be prepared for that. But I just re-happened-upon it from this great set of advice from Mike Birbiglia, and I noticed a few new thoughts.

  1. I am at the phase in my web-developer life where I know what good code looks like but I’m still only good at writing it some of the time.
  2. Being a college student was a great emotional platform from which to be creative. I had such low expectations for myself (because LOL COLLEGE), and it gave me quite a lot of freedom.
  3. Since graduating and finding myself in what they call the “professional world”, I haven’t been generating enough garbage.

It’s important to generate garbage. Every cool thing I’ve ever done has been the consequence of dozens of total failures. But college was a great time to be a failure, and “adulthood” has tricked me into thinking that failure suddenly has “consequences”. And of course, some failures (failure to pay my water bill, failure to write a cover letter that doesn’t make me want to pull my eyes out) do.

But I’ve been taking my web development projects inordinately seriously lately, which just means I give up on most of them before they get anywhere. The perfect, they say, is the enemy of the good.

And the good is the enemy of the total garbage.

But in the creative process (and, I would argue, probably all skills aside from actual heart surgery), total garbage is important. It’s how you practice. It’s how you learn. You write a terrible short story about that one time you smoked a cigarrette in high school and how fire is a metaphor for life or something. You throw it out. You start over. And then one time in a hundred, you stumble into something awesome. And you learn what made it awesome. And you go back to making garbage, but the awesome things hopefully happen more often.

how to be a wizard programmer

In a web development context, you get stuck on a bug, and you power through it. I printed out this comic (via Julia Evans) and hung it up at my desk at work, to remind me that the feeling of “failure”, or not knowing things, or being frustrated is a part of the process. You have to not-know-things before you can know things.

So I need to stop holding myself to such a high standard. I want to go into projects with the careless arrogance of a college kid with nothing to lose, and abandon them when they stop being fun, not when they fail to meet my expectations.