Last week, I wrote about goals and which requires more courage: pursuing a goal or achieving a goal. But I forgot about what happens in between, about what takes up a lot of ground between the pursuit and the achievement. Failure.
I read a great article this weekend about the role failure plays in success, posted on cnn.com (go ahead and click over to read it. I’ll wait.) There is a compelling part about Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jennifer Egan’s 50-60 written drafts it takes to get to a complete novel. And of course you’ve heard about Thomas Edison’s 1,000+ failed attempts before he got a hit with the incandescent light bulb.
A worthy topic, failure. What really got my attention was this passage:
“Robert Epstein, a former editor of Psychology Today and founder of the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies, likens the process to being stuck in a locked room. The doorknob isn’t responding. You turn it, you jiggle it, you lift it. Nothing.
“When you’re ineffective and you can’t turn that knob, lots and lots of different behaviors and thoughts and ideas all pop up simultaneously, more or less — and that’s the stuff of creativity,” he says. “That’s where the inner connections occur.”
The imagery is familiar for anyone who has felt “stuck” creatively or who has had to contemplate a potential failure. It’s even more familiar to me because I have, in fact, been stuck in a room with a non-responsive doorknob.
Some of you reading may remember this event, and your role in it, all too well…
It was late-August 1993, about 6:30 in the morning. Our dorm was built in 1927 and we enjoy a gorgeous room of hard wood floors, wood trim, a leaded glass bay window and a giant, 8 foot tall solid wood door. My college roommate and I are up early because we are Orientation Leaders for incoming freshman and our work begins early. I’m out of bed first, shuffling with my towel and shower basket over to the door, and nothing happens when I turn the knob. Thinking the heat and humidity has swelled the wooden door, I put my shower stuff down and try with both hands. Nothing.
My roommate, a bit exasperated by all the noise of door-fumbling, climbs out of bed and stalks over as if my weakling hands are the problem. The door does not budge for her, either.
We laugh, because when you’re 20 and in college, this is a silly adventure. We call our two friends upstairs who also laugh and say, “Ha-ha, funny guys! We’ll see you at breakfast.” Hmmm.
We’re still giggly and call our RA down the hall. Clearly un-amused, but doing her official duty, we hear her door open and her feet pad down the hallway. She gives the doorknob a half-hearted jiggle and then says something along the lines of “can’t get it open…you better hurry or you’ll miss breakfast.”
No one believes us. We are genuinely locked/trapped in our dorm room and everyone thinks we’re joking.
And isn’t that how it is when you’re stuck? People on the outside have no idea what it’s like unless they’re stuck, too. And it’s very rare that two people are ever stuck in exactly the same way (probably this never happens, creatively.)
Being stuck creatively evokes a sense of powerlessness; nothing is flowing and you might have doubts that it ever will again. The best course of action when you first sense a “stuck-ness” is to face it head-on. Look around and see what you can find that you can use. An old tool, a new tool, or an old tool used in a new way. Keep up the momentum somehow.
We can’t just climb back into bed. One, we both desperately need to pee. Two, we are supposed to be “mustering” at breakfast with the rest of the Orientation Leaders for a day of free labor for the college. We call Security, and we get out our little dorm room tool box.
With hammer and screwdriver, we begin to try to wrestle the pins out from the door hinges, which have been in place for nearly 70 years. The Security Officer is alternately heaving his shoulder at the door and jiggling the knob. The hinge-pins are barely moving, and we hear the Security Officer on his walkie-talkie. My roommate is back to fussing with the knob when the door quite suddenly and smoothly swings open. For a split second, she and I stare at the Security Officer, who stares back, and we rush past him with our towels and shower baskets.
We hurry into the dining hall to scarf down a quick breakfast and our RA and two friends are all dropped jaws and stricken expressions. “We thought you were kidding.” The walkie-talkie conversation about the two girls trapped in their room was broadcast to every walkie-talkie on campus, many of which were in that dining hall during breakfast.
Later that fall, the faulty mechanism on our door locked us OUT one night, requiring an undoubtedly expensive late-night visit from a locksmith. He was kind enough to let us keep the doorknobs when my roommate asked. She and I each still have half of the set as a keepsake.
A room cannot remain locked forever. Call a friend (it usually helps), pry off the hinges (unconventional, but it would have worked), or simply keep at it (tenacity is often rewarded). The door might just swing open, smoothly, like it was never stuck to begin with. And that is NOT a fail.