Brain Pickings

What Children Can Teach Us About Risk, Failure, and Personal Growth

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“Our fear of failure … assures the progressive narrowing of the personality.”

“If I limit myself to knowledge that I consider true beyond doubt,” E.F. Schumacher wrote in his timelessly wonderful A Guide for the Perplexed in 1977, “I minimize the risk of error but I maximize, at the same time, the risk of missing out on what may be the subtlest, most important and most rewarding things in life.” In the decades since, the notion of embracing risk and failure has become one of the most common tropes in motivational talks, self-help books and business articles alike. It’s been championed by everyone from Ray Bradbury, who considered failure essential to creativity, to Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull, who argued for the importance of cultivating a failure-fearless culture, but none more eloquently than social science writer John W. Gardner in a section of Self-Renewal: The Individual and the Innovative Society (public library) — his altogether fantastic, forgotten field guide to keeping your company and your soul vibrantly alive, which remains a must-read as much for entrepreneurs as for those of us on a private journey of self-transcendence.

Illustration from Lisbeth Zwerger's imaginative interpretation of Alice in Wonderland. Click image for more.

Gardner considers what children’s supple membrane for experience can teach us about the role of failure in learning and growth:

One of the reasons why mature people are apt to learn less than young people is that they are willing to risk less. Learning is a risky business, and they do not like failure. In infancy, when the child is learning at a truly phenomenal rate — a rate he will never again achieve — he is also experiencing a shattering number of failures. Watch him. See the innumerable things he tries and fails. And see how little the failures discourage him. With each year that passes he will be less blithe about failure. By adolescence the willingness of young people to risk failure has diminished greatly. And all too often parents push them further along that road by instilling fear, by punishing failure or by making success seem too precious. By middle age most of us carry in our heads a tremendous catalogue of things we have no intention of trying again because we tried them once and failed — or tried them once and did less well than our self-esteem demanded.

Artwork from 'Fail Safe,' Debbie Millman's illustrated-essay-turned-commencement address. Click image for more.

The cost of our ever-shrinking comfort zone, Gardner argues, is tremendous:

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure — all your life. It’s as simple as that.

Self-Renewal is a trove of timeless wisdom in its entirety. Sample it further here and complement it with Sarah Lewis’s elegant treatise on the gift of failure across the history of creative culture.

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O Captain! My Captain! David Foster Wallace, Robin Williams, Walt Whitman, and the Unholy Ghost of Suicide

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“My Captain does not answer … he has no pulse nor will.”

In the introduction to Quack This Way — the remarkable record of Bryan Garner’s wide-ranging conversation with David Foster Wallace — Garner makes a passing mention of the email address Wallace used in their correspondence: ocapmycap@… The email provider following the @ symbol changed over the years, but Wallace kept his moniker — one that takes on a special, wistful meaning in light of his subsequent suicide.

It was an allusion to Walt Whitman‘s 1865 elegy “O Captain! My Captain!,” a mourning poem for Abraham Lincoln titled after its piercing refrain:

O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

The recurrence of Whitman’s grim refrain in the context of Robin Williams’s suicide is strange and poignant happenstance. Among Williams’s most beloved films is the 1989 classic Dead Poets Society, in which Whitman’s poem serves as a centerpiece — Williams’s character instructs his students to call him “O Captain! My Captain” — and it appears in one of the film’s most memorable scenes:

Williams, of course, didn’t write the film, nor the scene — but he did carry both, and as he once observed in a 1992 Playboy interview, “characters are just a free way of talking as yourself.”

As soon as one fully grasps the soul-ravaging depths of depression, a tragic parallel between Williams’s death and Lincoln’s emerges, lending Whitman’s eulogy double poignancy — Lincoln was assassinated by antagonists he had dedicated his life to fighting, and Williams died by the claw of the ghastly inner monster that severe depression lodges in the human spirit, losing a long fight with the unholy ghost.

(In the same interview, Williams also stated: “Some issues are deeply personal. I get near them and think, I’m not ready to deal with that yet. When you’re comfortable with it, you can be free about it. If not, it’s open-heart surgery.” In yet another eerie parallel, Williams underwent actual open-heart surgery seventeen years later — a procedure that, according to the prestigious Cleveland Clinic Foundation and a multitude of medical authorities, puts patients at a significant risk for postoperative depression. Mental health, of course, is a complex ecosystem in which myriad physiological, psychological, and social factors interact, but this detail gives one pause nonetheless.)

Ultimately, what drives a person to take his or her own life is a matter of intensely private unknowns and unknowables. Whitman’s words ring:

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will…

Suicide, lest we forget, is a social malady — please join me in supporting the pulse and will of life with a donation to the Suicide Prevention Hotline.

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C.S. Lewis’s Ideal Daily Routine

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“It is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail.”

I’ve had a longtime fascination with the daily routines of notable writers and their creative rituals. One of the most lyrical, opinionated, and altogether wonderful comes from C.S. Lewis — a man of great wisdom on writing and extraordinary capacity for nuance in existential matters. In his 1955 spiritual memoir, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (public library), Lewis outlines his ideal daily routine, modeled after his time studying privately at Great Bookham with his father’s old tutor at the age of fifteen:

[I] settled into a routine which has ever since served in my mind as an archetype, so that what I still mean when I speak of a “normal” day (and lament that normal days are so rare) is a day of the Bookham pattern. For if I could please myself I would always live as I lived there. I would choose always to breakfast at exactly eight and to be at my desk by nine, there to read or write till one. If a cup of good tea or coffee could be brought me about eleven, so much the better. A step or so out of doors for a pint of beer would not do quite so well; for a man does not want to drink alone and if you meet a friend in the taproom the break is likely to be extended beyond its ten minutes. At one precisely lunch should be on the table…

Like artist Maira Kalman, who has long advocated for walking as a creative catalyst, Lewis was an avid walker — but with a key disclaimer:

By two at the latest I would be on the road. Not, except at rare intervals, with a friend. Walking and talking are two very great pleasures, but it is a mistake to combine them. Our own noise blots out the sounds and silences of the outdoor world; and talking leads almost inevitably to smoking, and then farewell to nature as far as one of our senses is concerned. The only friend to walk with is one … who so exactly shares your taste for each mood of the countryside that a glance, a halt, or at most a nudge, is enough to assure us that the pleasure is shared.

(Of course, walking with the right kind of companion can only amplify our capacity to pay attention, rather than diminishing it.)

Lewis holds equally strong opinions about his tea. One can almost picture him demanding a strict adherence to George Orwell’s eleven golden rules for the perfect cup of tea as he describes the afternoon ritual:

The return from the walk, and the arrival of tea, should be exactly coincident, and not later than a quarter past four. Tea should be taken in solitude…

He goes on to outline the qualitative norms for permissible multitasking during mealtime, with some humbling criteria for what he considers light — “gossipy, formless” — reading:

Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably. Of course not all books are suitable for mealtime reading. It would be a kind of blasphemy to read poetry at table. What one wants is a gossipy, formless book which can be opened anywhere. The ones I learned so to use at Bookham were Boswell, and a translation of Herodotus, and Lang’s History of English Literature. Tristram Shandy, Elia and The Anatomy of Melancholy are all good for the same purpose.

And then, it’s back to work until bedtime, the latter being a matter of strict discipline — because, lest we forget, the correlation between sleep and literary productivity is not to be dismissed:

At five a man should be at work again, and at it till seven. Then, at the evening meal and after, comes the time for talk, or, failing that, for lighter reading; and unless you are making a night of it with your cronies (and at Bookham I had none) there is no reason why you should ever be in bed later than eleven.

But Lewis’s most prescient money-quote — the one likely to elicit a bitter cackle from today’s inbox-weary writer — comes at the very end:

But when is a man to write his letters? You forget that I am describing the happy life I led with Kirk or the ideal life I would live now if I could. And it is essential of the happy life that a man would have almost no mail and never dread the postman’s knock.

Complement with Lewis on how to write with authenticity and what free will really means, then revisit the daily routines of Charles Darwin, William S. Burroughs, Charles Bukowski, John Updike, Joy Williams, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Melville, Henry Miller, Mark Twain, Gertrude Stein, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, and other literary titans.

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