The Importance of Failure

I was having a conversation with an online acquaintance of mine, Lynn, about the application of lessons learned in the martial arts to other areas of life.  He offered the following anecdote, which I thought was highly relevant:

“Something I think about with regard to practice…. In one of my past lives, I was involved in performance car rallying, where beefed-up cars race over logging roads in the forests. (I was never a hot-shot driver, but I was a pretty good rally navigator.) In the ’70s, there was a driver named John Buffum. By day, he was a car dealer from Vermont, but he was also the top rally driver in the U.S., and he had factory support from British Leyland, who supplied him with Triumph TR-7s. He was *very* fast, but he crashed a lot, so much so that the other drivers nicknamed him “Stuffum Buffum”, since he was always stuffing his cars into the ditch. Each time, British Leyland would ship him another TR-7. The thing was, though, that as time went on, he crashed less and less, but was still very fast. And since he had crashed so many times, he knew exactly what the car felt like when it was right on the edge, so he knew when to back off. Other drivers, who did not have the luxury of getting a new car every race, didn’t have this experience, so they had to be more cautious and slower. I see something similar at my job. We are always under the gun, trying to develop software to meet some too-early deadline and, as a result, we do not have time to fail. And because of that, we usually stick to what worked in the past, rather than trying something new that might make us much more efficient.”

This brings up a point which I consider vital in both martial arts practice and in the rest of life: the importance of failure.

On the mats we have the opportunity to fail over and over and over again.  This is the only way to learn the limits of our techniques and of ourselves. As Rener and Ryron Gracie are fond of saying: every technique can work some of the time, no technique works all the time. Only by testing our techniques to failure can we learn exactly when and how much we can rely on each one. Only by testing them to failure can we truly understand which details are crucial for success and why.  Only by testing ourselves to failure can we understand exactly where our personal limitations are and begin to learn how to improve upon them.

Part of the beauty of jiu-jitsu practice is that we can fail over and over again safely, without death or permanent injury.  (Remember that ego is the enemy of safety.  If I tap out a thousand times, I can learn from my “failure” each time.  If my ego refuses to allow me to tap and I fight out of 10 submissions only to get my arm broken on the 11th, it becomes a much more expensive lesson.)

Being human, most of us have a natural aversion to failure.  The temptation to avoid failure on the mat can present itself in a myriad of ways.  Perhaps we can avoid positions that we know we are weak in.  Perhaps we can avoid sparring partners who are more skilled or more athletic or who just have a game well-suited for giving us a hard time. Perhaps we can avoid stand-up practice when we are good on the ground or vice-versa.  Perhaps we can avoid sparring when we are feeling tired or rusty.  All those temptations will limit our progress.  Trust me, there is nothing more liberating than realizing that it’s perfectly okay to get tapped out by a lower belt or to try a technique and blow it completely or to just look stupid or klutzy.  When you don’t mind failing, practice becomes more fun and progress becomes much faster.

All this, as Lynn most astutely realized, applies equally to the rest of life.  Do your best to make sure that the chances you take don’t cause harm to others or permanent damage to yourself, but beyond that: fail early, fail often, and try to have fun doing so.  The rewards are worth it.

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