I met a writer who set out to get 50 rejection letters for her book manuscript. Besides being funny, it was a great way to do the hard thing of admitting you are trying to get published.
When I was a kid, I loved to play with erector sets. I sat with my siblings and made amazing things. I remember often being asked “what are you making” and always replying “I don’t know yet.”
I would put things together until it started to look like something, add parts, adjust my end goal to match what was happening.
Externally that is a pretty good creative process. But internally was not as good. I was afraid that if I decided on an end goal, I might fail. So instead, I just didn’t decide.
To have a clear failure, you need a clear goal. And clear failures are helpful for getting to next steps.
With my erector set, if I had said “I’m making a car” (which, in fact, I was) then when it turned out to be a rocking chair (which it did) then I could have compared my results to my vision. I might have gotten help with parts that didn’t work. I might have seen my siblings projects and learned how they solved a problem I faced. My unwillingness to fail meant I didn’t learn to do a better job at building with our erector set. As I got older, I lost interest in an activity I once loved, because I didn’t learn to do it better over time.
At the first church I served we developed an aggressive revitalization plan. Or rather, I developed it. And then I complained when parishioners didn’t do what I had planned. In the big picture, the revitalization plan failed, and the church closed. But what really happened is there were no intermediate steps, no small projects to complete, evaluate, and try again. We wanted to “get out there in the community”. But why? How often? In what ways? We never set a vision, nor any small goals to get us to that vision.
Years later I can see that I one of my failures was right at the start: I failed to include the congregation in the making the plan. Knowing that I have been able to work on vitality differently in later congregations I served. By recognizing the failure, I can make adjustments to my work.
Lots of people—almost everyone—has reassured me that it is not my fault that the church closed. That is true. But that doesn’t take away from my failure to include the congregation in the planning. Reassuring me that I hadn’t failed was not helpful. And it interfered with my ability to analyze how I *had* failed. For failure to lead to growth we have to admit that it happened.
And the only way to know it happened is to set a meaningful goal. If our goal at that church had been to “try a few things”, well then we succeeded! We tried even more than few things. But that goal is so vague and small there was no way to learn from from it.
As is the case with so many mindset challenges, the problem is circular. I don’t set concrete goals because I’m afraid of failing to meet them. And because I was afraid of failing, I can’t see that what I tried failed. And when I can’t see that I failed, I can’t find a new way that is better than the previous try. And then, when I start something new, I set a vague goal, because I don’t *know* what to do differently this time.
If we can start celebrating our failures as strategies for learning, and if we can start setting real goals, we can break the circuit!
So I’m working on finding the names of 50 different publishers!
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.