In Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary, there’s a key moment where they’re trying to decide whether to create new tools or to create an environment with gravity where existing tools will work.

They decide to do the latter, reasoning that it’s far better to use tools that have gone through millions of hours of testing, including tens of thousands of failures, then create new tools that don’t have the same benefit.

It came to me at a helpful time. I understand intellectually that “failure” is a necessary part of progress. There’s been something “off” for me, though.

In Loss and Sorrow, I wrote:

I’ve realized, though, that joy and happiness can exist in the same moment with loss and sorrow and that both need their space.

I think there’s opportunity for a similar thought about failure and success. It’s been poking at me for a few days now.

A quote from Jason Fried on the topic of failure came to mind and I decided to look it up.

We don’t use the words “failed” or “failure” at 37signals. They’re unproductive, overtly negative, halting, and severe for no good reason. And I’ve never liked how our industry fetishizes them either (“fail early and often”, for example).

Instead say “that didn’t work out”, or “things didn’t go as planned”, or “stuff didn’t turn out the way we intended” or “next time we’ll try something else” or “we could have done a better job on that”.

IMHO, that’s a healthier way to approach almost any situation. It’s not a dodge or an abstraction either — it’s actually more honest, and more aptly addresses the continuum of iteration and improvement.

Jason Fried on LinkedIn

I think he’s onto something. There’s still something “off” for me, though.

In the past, my use of optimism as a defense mechanism would have me agree with Jason and determine to root out the word “failure” from my vocabulary – “It’s all a learning opportunity!” There’s truth to that, of course.

For me as a human, though, optimism as a defense mechanism wasn’t giving me the opportunity to also sit with the loss and sorrow that come when life doesn’t work as you’re expecting – which for most of us is often.

When our initial “big effort” with Guildenberg in October / November of last year didn’t go as planned, on top of all the personal circumstances in my life at the time, I found myself especially devastated and the veil of optimism wasn’t cutting it anymore.

I’m growing slowly and steadily out of survival mode – which is good news. As I become more comfortable sitting with loss and sorrow, I also recognize that optimism and looking forward is a part of who I am and I don’t quit. It might be slow, awkward, and painful, but I get back up and I keep trying.

I’m drawn to continuous improvement, to progress over perfection, even as I struggle internally with accepting that plans not working as expected is OK, is unavoidable, is human, and as part of a forward-moving process is essential to building something that lasts.

Thank you Joshua for another great book recommendation.