On Failure: The Courage to Break the Rock

*Original posted at dazzle & delight

I had a religious experience with this pizza.

I had a religious experience with this pizza.

There’s nothing like walking on a 2000-year-old floor to make you feel philosophical. 

About a month ago I returned from a long-planned and anticipated family vacation to Italy, where I ate approximately my normal yearly quota of pasta and pizza in a week (holler Eat Pray Love pizza place Pizzeria L’Antica da Michelle in Naples), marveled at antiquities around every corner, and saw more art in a few days than I’ve seen before in my life.  I learned that they had sassy glass mascara rods in ancient Pompeii.  I learned that people still leave flowers on Julius Caesar's grave.  I learned that you will never eat anywhere in central Rome without encountering street vendors trying to sell you mechanical dancing cats--and that my sweet mother-in-law was powerless to resist purchasing said dancing cat.  It was exhausting.  It was magical.  International travel has a tendency to pick you up, spin you around, and challenge your perspective on the world.   (Thank goodness.  I don't know about you, but I need that every once in awhile!)

I’ve always loved marble sculpture—there is something indescribably magical to me about bare rock transformed into flesh.  But the more of them I saw (and I saw a LOT), the more I found myself imagining the moment of their creation.  Particularly that very first moment:  Artist.  Rock.  Hammer.  Chisel.  And courage.

Marble ain’t cheap, right?  (Even though Italy seems to be chock-full of the stuff.)  An artist would search diligently for the perfect piece for the project—and then, that artist had to start ever so gently and methodically BREAKING that stone.

“The carver places the point of the chisel or the edge of the pitching tool against a selected part of the stone, then swings the mallet at it with a controlled stroke. He must be careful to strike the end of the tool accurately; the smallest miscalculation can damage the stone, not to mention the sculptor’s hand. When the mallet connects to the tool, energy is transferred along the tool, shattering the stone.”

When I read that, I shivered (well done, Wikipedia page writer) . . . “energy is transferred” . . . isn’t that what happens when we invest ourselves fully into a project or a dream?  Energy, life force, faith, hope, angst, manifesting, positive thinking, whatever you want to call it--that's what goes in.  But the energy can’t be fully transferred until we are willing to make the first strike, and then the second, and the third, and the forty-second, and the hundred and thirteenth--all the while knowing that every strike might go awry somehow.  That we may have to change our plans, or start over, or throw up our hands in frustration and walk away, or admit that we have no frickin' clue what we're doing and maybe we should have researched this better or asked for help.  And then strike again.

I've been reading a few pointed criticisms of the "cult of positive thinking" lately--writers who believe that positive thinking is actually a BAD thing, because it keeps us in dreaming mode and prevents us from acting.  But that's not the kind of positive thinking I subscribe to, and it's not the kind my mentors are advocating for.  I don't want to stay in sunshine and rainbows and "everything I create is a masterpiece" dream mode, even though it's a fun place to be, and the stakes are easy to deal with.  I want to dream it, and then DO it.

Imagine if baby Michelangelo—the guy who famously said he was just “freeing the human form trapped in the rock”—had not been willing to make his first strike at the marble?  If he had found it too precious to possibly ruin with his efforts?  If he had not been willing to risk a colossal screw-up on the way towards his first masterpiece?  If he had said, “Someone else will have to do this.  Someone more experienced/talented/wiser/better-looking/more devout/etc..”  What talent might the world have unknowingly been deprived of?  What treasures of art would we have missed?  The David was made from a piece of rock no one else wanted to work with--other artists had tried and failed, and said "man, that piece of marble is impossible.  It'll break."  And he made that imperfect chunk of stone into one of the most famous and beautiful sculptures on earth.  It would have been a crime to deprive the world of David's beauteous marble booty . . .

Now, I’m not suggesting that you, dear readers, go out and find some marble to practice on.  But I am suggesting that we all take a good hard look at what it means to “fail”.  Failure is not an end game (well, it can be if you give up, but that's not what we're talking about here).  Failure is a TOOL--just like that hammer and chisel.

In addition to my adult voice clients, I work with a lot of kids as a singing teacher.  Wonderful kids - smart, striving, goofy kids, some of whom are living, breathing models of the perils of perfectionism (more on that in a later post - I recognize it because I live it).  One in particular, as we worked on her recital song, simply would NOT sing "the big high note".  Every time she approached it, she froze, contorted her face into an apology to me, and all of her beautiful sound was just choked off.

So we had a chat.  I told her that voice lessons (this space with just me and her and piano) are a completely safe place to "make mistakes" - to NOT sound pretty - to go for that high note and crack on an epic level.  But that if she never really went for the note, she would never sing it.  I didn't care if she sang it "perfectly" on the first try - in fact, I almost guaranteed her that she wouldn't.  And that that was not only OK, it was the first, necessary step down the road to singing that note beautifully and with the utmost confidence.

I recently devoured Brene Brown’s marvelous book “Daring Greatly”, which is about that very thing.   The willingness to be vulnerable in a world that doesn’t value it, and to help others embrace their own vulnerability by sharing ours with them.  The willingness to risk failure and the courage to lean into discomfort in order to “dare greatly”.    I won't say much more except READ IT.  NOWWWWW.

Between Brene and Michelangelo and his ilk, I am personally committing to picking up my metaphorical hammer and chisel, and to helping my students and clients pick up theirs.  I'm ready to break some rock in pursuit of greatness.  I'm ready to fail, and fail better, and then, with practice and hard work and research and help and courage...to succeed.






Casey Erin Clark