I was listening to an old episode of This American Life the other day. The episode was about an orchestra teacher turned ad-hoc scientist who worked with a scientist testing a promising new idea for a cure for cancer (side note: a truly fascinating story, not surprising for this show).
One thing I identified with in the story was the orchestra teacher’s frustration with the high level of failure in science. You spend all this time setting up controls and testing variables, testing and retesting a hypothesis. The vast majority of the time, the experiment doesn’t work out and it means starting all over and/or refining an experiment and trying again. For the non-scientist, this lack of success is incredibly discouraging. It feels like a lot of work for nothing.
But for the scientist, this is just part of the job. You have to be ok with experiments not working out most of the time. There must be a degree of acceptance that lots of trials and mostly errors are how it goes and breakthroughs are rarely quick processes. If you defined your happiness and competence at your work based on how each experiment works out, it’d be hard to get any motivation to keep trying.
Certainly there are other professions where this concept is true. Grant writing comes to mind, as does sales and activism. I am not a patient person by nature nor am I good at accepting that I’m going to fall down a lot of the time especially when I’m learning new things. I’ve always wondered how on earth people stick withsuch frustrating odds. What keeps people going?
I’m learning through my yoga practice and teaching that the answer to this question has to do with being dedicated to a larger purpose that isn’t dependent on a specific outcome. For the scientist, the love of the process and commitment to a theory or idea or particular investigation can be the driving purpose behind conducting each experiment. In yoga we set an intention for the practice. The intention is not a goal like balancing in handstand, but rather a dedication of our practice to a higher reason for our doing yoga, be it connecting to our breath or a re-commitment remaining present in each moment, each pose. As a teacher, this means staying true to the reason why I teach yoga and being prepared, but also accepting that not every class is going to be a rousing success.
When I find myself zeroing in on my failures and focusing on how far I have to go, I’m instead trying to take a scientist’s view of the situation. Our endeavors are experiments that we’re committed to with our eyes on a larger intention. If we’re sticking to that, failure becomes part of the process and not a measure of our self-worth and achievement.