2019: my year in failure

But the burgers are great.

New year, new you. But in the time-honoured tradition of social media, there’s a perverse need to brag about the old year first. With the nominal end of a decade, the annual rite of accomplishment accounting has seemingly reached a fever pitch, and, per usual, it makes me deeply uncomfortable.

Last year, I wrote about social media and how it commoditises success. I still stand by that: trying to find universal denominators for individual triumphs is reductive and dangerous. There are exceptions, of course, and there’s a role for ensuring that under-heard voices get their chance at the platform. But, ultimately, you are the only audience that matters, and when we turn to the digital hordes, even for polite validation, we’re outsourcing our personal resilience.

The other thing about success, of course, is that it is it is finite.

Not to go all ‘journey, not destination, but success is a point on a line, not the final destination. You aren’t ever done. One thing leads to another. A PhD to a professorship, a degree to a job, a car to a new city. Or if it doesn’t directly contribute, the closure of the first thing often allows the freedom to do the second. Finishing study to starting a career, finding yourself so you can find someone else, reading fifty books so you can read fifty more.

(And as any advertising agency knows, there’s only so long you can keep a great campaign on a showreel. After a few years, its presence raises more questions than it answers. Why haven’t you done anything lately?)

Success is also fickle. Things come undone. Other things stop mattering. Events happen, the context changes, priorities shift.

It is appropriate, then, that after arbitrarily declaring four personal “successes” last year, three of them subsequently, well… un-succeeded. Here’s where they stand now:

  • I’ve got a booth. Setting up a booth was a matter of engraining a habit - visiting repeatedly and establishing the relationship. Alas, if a few hundred other people had done the same, the restaurant would still exist. Sometimes you can do everything you can do to achieve an objective, and the context (rising rent, absence of other diners…) still triumphs. The success was lovely while it happened, but was overly reliant on external factors. The important thing is to learn what you can about what you did; study the process, if not the result.

  • All our books are off the floor. About 99% of our books are in boxes right now. The remaining 1%, are, I’m afraid, in a heap on the floor. I trip over them every day. This is a good thing. We are finally doing long, long overdue repairs to our home. It was painful to take down all the perfectly shelved and ordered books. Really painful. But objectives also need to be prioritised. Sorting books was a priority, but it stood in the way of future improvements. There’s no point in clinging to a minor achievement if it prohibits a major one.

  • I finally achieved a resolution! After taking five years to achieve my resolution (play cricket), I neither set - not achieved - a new resolution last year. I can honestly say I haven’t thought about setting a resolution since writing that email a year ago. Playing cricket is great, but it didn’t build into anything more. And the objective of setting an objective was meaningless in and of itself. Sometimes the objective just doesn’t matter any more. There’s nothing wrong with being ruthless.

On the other hand:

  • I can reverse sear. Without making too much of a meal of it (fnar), the one success that’s stuck is one that: a) is unaffected by context (Even the grill goes away, I can’t ‘unlearn’ a skill.)b) comes with tangible rewards in and of itself (I get to eat great burgers.)c) builds to other, future objectives (I can move on to other, trickier tasks than burgers.)

As an objective, it is robust, rewarding, and relevant. Let’s call that the “Three Rs”, because alliteration is a sign of great planning. To add a fourth - review. Don’t just set objectives, meet them, and move on. How often do people review their New Year’s Resolutions from previous years? Learn from what you achieved, or didn’t; why, or why not. Use your “knowledge of the past as an aid to the understanding of the future” (your morning dose of Thucydides). Failure may be unavoidable, but only the first time around.

Let’s stress test versus a random objective: my attempt to read every Edgar debut winner.

Is that robust? Mostly. There aren’t many external circumstances that could derail this. Some of the damn books are really elusive, I suppose. And my time is stretched, but then, I don’t have a deadline.

Is it rewarding? Yes. Reading a good book has an immediate payoff.

Is it relevant? Yes. I’m skimming across a half-century of fiction, so this can lead to future challenges, for example, reading more deeply into particular authors, series, or even eras. As this is a list of debuts, I’m effectively reading seventy-odd jumping-off points.

That’s a pretty niche example, but it works. I may not have a booth, but at least I’ve got a lot of mysteries to read.

Recommending Neuromancer is silly, but in case you’re the one subscriber that hasn’t read - or haven’t reread it for years - it feels incredibly appropriate to life in 2020. Neuromancer, unlike a lot of quite hardish SF from the mid-‘80s, holds up.

Simply because it is never, ever about the technology (which is vague and indistinct), but always about people’s relationship to it.

The aesthetics of the book have proven infinitely trendy, but the themes are what make it a legitimate classic. Also this.

(For collectors, you can pre-order signed copies of Gibson’s latest via Blackwell’s.)

For fun:

An analysis of the content of 50,000 American sermons. Curious, but, right now, largely focused on things like ‘length’ and ‘specificity of Biblical references’. I’d love to see another wave of analysis that captures sentiment, tone, topic, contemporary issues, etc.

Personality and place. (I’d never heard the term ‘WEIRD’ before, but it is really useful - and makes for a useful cautionary note as we apply Western communications practices to international behaviour change tasks.)

(I don’t leave reviews on GR, but I’m always happy to talk about books. My ‘rating system’ is a bit bonkers as well. The only rating I give is 5 stars, and that’s less about subjective ‘quality’ than a note-to-self so I can find it again easily.)

Have a very happy New Year. Fail well.

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