Friday, January 30, 2009


[This essay was one of the three I submitted as a group, Essays on Clay, in 1988 as the written aspect of my Master of Arts Thesis, at the University of Iowa.]96. Failure

As a culture, we don’t spend much time studying failure, or admitting that we ought to. It’s un-American. Traditionally, our nation wins, celebrating victory with lavish glee, and sweeping failures quickly under the rug. We speak to ourselves of “the agony of defeat.” Yet within the vast realm of failure lies all the improvement, innovation, and wonder of our future. We already do those things we have succeeded at. Our future depends upon studying those things we have not yet been able to do, our failures.
Failure has allowed us to define the outer limits of our current abilities and to understand the principles underlying our successes. Scientists depend upon broad samplings dominated by negative results. Statesmen review the failures of history to negotiate political solutions. And artists generate dozens of failures for each successful work of art, scanning each inadequate sketch, or photograph, or pot, for the seeds of future innovations and success.
As an example, a potter might formulate an experimental blue glaze and find, after firing a sample, that the glaze did not turn out blue, but rather, black. In the common view, the potter failed and needs to re-consider hundreds of factors (including the glaze formula, glaze materials, mixing procedure, firing schedule, and glaze application) in order to correct the problem. However, in such a situation, “failure” presents many opportunities. Chief among these opportunities is the ‘black’ glaze itself. The foolish artist might just throw the sample away as being unacceptable as a blue. However, the sample might, indeed, be an excellent black, or the starting point for development of an excellent black.
As an artist, it becomes necessary to see not only what is not there (blue), but what is there (black). This applies to every aspect of art.
This also applies to science, as well as other fields. For instance, the 3M Company produces a handy type of notepaper which sticks to a wide variety of surfaces. Notes need not be held in place by paperweights, clamps, pushpins, or tacks. Rather, an adhesive strip on the back of every sheet of paper holds it in place. The unique feature of this notepaper is the adhesive, which is actually a rather ineffective glue. Just strong enough to hold the notepaper to a vertical surface, its bond is so weak that the notepaper can be easily removed without even leaving any adhesive residue on the surface.
To scientists, trying to develop a stronger adhesive, such a weak result constituted a failure. However, by studying their results, and thinking creatively, they saw a success in that failure. What had failed as a strong, permanent bond, succeeded as a special purpose product, of great convenience, never before available.
Not only can one type of failure become another type of success, failure can also become its own success – the old Chicago Cubs, or the 1988 Baltimore Orioles, for example. (Teams, for whom losing became a trademark, a point of perverse pride to their die-hard fans.) I think we find something inherently relaxing about learning to expect and enjoy failure.
For centuries, Japanese Tea Masters—influenced by the teachings of Zen Buddhism—have admired and cherished pots that traditional Westerners would describe as hideous failures. These pots, tea bowls and jars, are quite often asymmetrical, roughly textured, scorched by the fire, and covered with the most dramatic and irregular of ash glaze deposits. Beyond being merely ‘blemished,’ these pots have been completely altered by the stresses of the fire.
And therein lies their beauty. Each pot is an absolute individual (impossible to duplicate), documenting fully the stubbornness of the clay, the guiding hands of the potter, and the elemental force of the fire. Its imperfections bind it to all the native imperfections of the world around us. Its rugged sturdiness reflects the human spirit.
Inherent to that human spirit is the strength to endure and the courage to take risks. Doctors ‘lose’ patients, lawyers lose cases, machines break down, and so do people, but no one loses more than when they fail to examine their mistakes or to risk making more. Life can not be just ‘win or lose’ but, rather, each of us must, inevitably, fail, and learn, and try again.

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