This is going to be a fairly down-to-earth column. It’s on a topic that is frequently addressed with inspirational words on stock photos of nature landscapes, but is not often addressed with more detail: the nature of effort.
In other words, why do we keep trying, even when it seems like what we’re doing is pointless?
Why keep writing our stories, even when most of them turn out to be crap and sometimes we just want to give it up and be a particle physicist? Why do particle physicists, for that matter, spend so much time on painstaking research that often yields nothing interesting?
As a would-be activist (who does more than just write), I face this issue all the time. In the world of “making change happen,” every little action can seem pointless, because building movements and changing deep-set societal patterns is darn difficult. So while I write from my own perspective, I also think this is relevant to most of what we do in life.
Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that don’t work.” This isn’t some carte blanche to be satisfied with never doing anything useful, but it is important to adapt to a different perspective on failure. Each failed effort is only a failure if you define failure as an action that didn’t produce the result you thought it would.
In reality, only a small percentage of our actions ever do what we think they’ll do. Life is an endless series of questioning actions, the fingers of our minds prodding into the vast world around us and asking, “What will happen now? Will this do something?”
In an endless game of questioning and discovery, it’s helpful to get used to life not working the way we want it to.
Think of the painting you thought would be wonderful that ended up as one of your worst experiments or the time you tried to hang out with a friend only to discover how awkward life can be. If we aren’t willing to stick our head out and be wrong, we’ll never fully appreciate what it means to be right. We’ll never have the courage to go to places we wouldn’t have gone before, and stumble upon something new and important.
Moreover, when something doesn’t work it is usually the case that most of it worked and only a few important parts didn’t. A failed lab experiment still gives you practice in the basics of being a researcher — writing grant applications, making a hypothesis, getting materials, making judgments and decisions about the process.
Only one thing has to be missing to produce a different result from what you thought you’d get. But everything else that you did do right has added to your experience. Doing something that doesn’t work over and over again can provide a solid basis for finally having it work.
The writer Natalie Goldberg used an excellent metaphor. Creative writing, she said, is like compost. A lot of what you write will just be average or no good at all. It’ll be brown and moldy and you’ll wrinkle your nose as you dig through it. But without compost, the occasional rose won’t grow and bloom. The work of artists is unnecessarily romanticized. Being an artist is hard, hard work. Even famous musicians are only human.
On Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” Jimmy Page said that “every musician wants to do something of lasting quality, something which will hold up for a long time and I guess we did it with ‘Stairway.’ … I don’t know whether I have the ability to come up with more. I have to do a lot of hard work before I can get anywhere near those stages of consistent, total brilliance.”
In our other pursuits, as in art, we just have to keep working. I think of this often as I contemplate the possibility of ending up in the annals of history as just another idealistic college sophomore. Two things keep me going: knowing that I’m not done yet and that even if I don’t accomplish what I want to, someone else might stand on my shoulders and bloom.