Thank God for Failure*

I want to share an article with you, written by Scott Adams for the Wall Street Journal. Scott Adams is the creator of the Dilbert comic strip that is overwhelmingly beloved by Caucasian males in their ’50s and ’60s. It is entitled “Scott Adams’ Secret of Success: Failure” and I think you should read it.

Adams talks about failure not as a negative in your career path, but rather as a chance to learn, change, and move on. Sounds kind of rehashed, right? Who hasn’t heard this maxim repeated ad nauseum in our very American culture of “You can be anything you want to be!”? What’s great is the angle from which Adams comes at this point on career failure. He uses the example of passion. “Find your passion,” “If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life,” etc., etc. Adams writes the opposite. Don’t chase after passion, because it can be an incredibly fleeting concept. As broken human beings, we often find ourselves passionate about things that are going well or that we find success in. Conversely, when was the last time you saw somebody truly passionate about something they were terrible at? At which they had zero talent? Exactly. The danger of this “passion” concept is that if we operate solely on our passion for a thing, for an idea, for a job, for a whatever, that passion can very quickly leave us when the going gets rough. When my start up fails. When I don’t see any measurable or visible improvement in my woodworking skill. When my sales numbers decrease even though I’m excited about the product I’m selling.

In a similar fashion, Adams says to throw out the goals you have as well. Goals are for people who will be constantly disappointed because they either haven’t him them yet, or they have hit them and they’ve lost their purpose. He advocates system-based orientation rather than goal-based. Find a system that works for you and do it until you find success. It is a model less concerned by failure as a goal-based method is. Now obviously this is slightly exaggerated language, but I love his logic. Specifically that it’s valuable to always be on the lookout for something better, even if you think you’ve landed your dream thing. And when failures inevitably arise, it’s important that we use them as opportunities to learn, to course-correct, and to keep moving. When we place all of our hope in a goal, we’re either constantly not hitting it, or hitting it and all of a sudden finding ourselves awash in the sea of “what’s next?”

Adams has a nice writing style, funny and approachable, and the article is an interesting and easy read, I encourage you to take 10 minutes and check it out. Fair warning though: it might make you evaluate your career path and launch you into the “what if?” game. It certainly did so for me. And not that I’m unhappy in my job. But it has led me to look back on the choices I’ve made that have brought me to my current spot. I’m only just 27 and I can already point out like 15 different weird choices/connections/relationships/circumstances that have brought me to librarianship in the agricultural industry. Very few of which were made by a conscious intentional decision to shoot for where I am right now. What do the next five years hold? It is a scary and exciting question, and constantly asking myself this question has helped motivate me to make connections where I can and shoot for opportunities that might seem disconnected or irrelevant because I can never know when things will come full circle and be a help right when I need it. And if those opportunities don’t work out, I want to view them simply as opportunities to learn from any mistakes I might have made, adjust my path as necessary, and keep plowing forward. Any other direction just isn’t as fun.

*Title of this post is taken from a truly fantastic Martin Sexton song. YouTube doesn’t have the studio version so here’s him doing it live.

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