Controlled Failure

I had an ambitious goal for 2015: To read a 105 books during the year. But I failed at it. I didn’t give up. I just realized that while it was an ambitious and “good” goal, it was worth allowing myself to fail, rather then make a mockery of the the intention behind setting the goal. The lesson I learned from the oscillations of guilt and can-do-must-do attitude was simple: remember the bigger picture, the intentions, then failure isn’t such a negative thing if the context justifies it.

I got really close, for the first quarter of the year I kept ahead of the book rate necessary to read 105 books in one year. Then the second quarter came in and I found myself struggling to keep up. Towards the end of the second quarter, I saw the first deficit develop between the number of books I should have read and what I was reading.

At first, during the third quarter, I tried to keep it under a three book deficit. But very quickly that deficit grew exponentially as I needed to read two and half books a week and I just could not digest that amount of literature. By the start of the last quarter of the year I was behind 34 books and that number was growing fast.

I thought, somewhere around the ten book deficit that I should just read really short books and ditch the lengthy ones, until I caught up. But that wouldn’t live up to the intention for the challenge. I wanted to read substantive books on subjects that I was interested in or saw the need to know more about. If I were to ditch that and just read any books, then I might as well just watch the movies and read spark notes. So I embraced the idea that I was going to fail at this challenge.

Its okay though, like I said, it was a “controlled failure” and I took it in stride. I realized that reading that many books was a challenge in the first place, but to read the sorts of books I was reading made the challenge incredibly difficult. I was reading five hundred page books on philosophy, politics, science, psychological topics, history, not the three hundred page turner novels. The reason to read these books was to spend a year becoming well rounded on issues and topics of contemporary concern.

And it wasn’t that I was lazy. No, contrary, I was traveling and experiences were immersive. I lived on a coffee plantation in Chiapas, Mexico; I walked the migrant trail in Guatemala; I visited communities devastated by ecological conservation work; and, I was collecting stories of 1947 Partition survival, celebrating a cousins wedding, spending time with family I hadn’t seen in half a decade. The year was packed full of life affirming experiences, and books were simply one aspect of learning.

Though I couldn’t shake the feeling of failure. Failure is such a dirty word. My family, society, we don’t talk about failure, nor do we see failure beyond the negative. So it was natural to be deeply disappointed with myself. I hate the idea of failing, yet, lately in my life I have been grappling a lot with failure. Watching this aspect of a personal goal failure unfold has helped me analyze my own response to failure and how I cope with it. It also provided a neutral topic of conversation to discuss failure with family and friends.

What I learned was that everybody focuses on celebrating success, and the failure that is wrapped up in achieving success is barely a footnote. I wish we had a society that appreciated failure, that taught positive responses to failure. I know it would have benefited me immensely. I know that for 2016, and moving forward, I need to grapple with failure in my life and truly turn it into a positive learning experience, because this reading challenge failure has taught me how powerful positively managing failure can be a win-win outcome.

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