• Jen Kohan

Failing Forward

In my work within innovation in social systems, we often discuss the importance of failure. The rubble left from bungles is one of our great resources for uncovering deep and often unforeseen causes of botched efforts. It's how we discover workarounds and reimagine designs. But there's also something about the humility of failure, and what it does to the humans who acknowledge it... something perhaps just as useful, and also a little dangerous.


I've been consistently succeeding and failing since childhood. Academically driven and unendingly curious, I was ushered into fertile spaces for learning in the Midwestern public schools I attended. I was terrible at applied mathematics, but fascinated by the theories underlying this strange language, and squeaked by in coursework enough to find my math brain blissfully content in the study of formal logic in college. Before that, I felt like a failure each time I brought home a test marked C-minus, only to be reassured by parents who genuinely meant it when they said "as long as you did your best, that's all that matters."


I was a tiny prodigy at the things I loved best: reading at marathon pace, horseback riding (for the tiny bit of time lessons were affordable), rocking out some sweet moves in dance class with my friends, building epic architectural structures with Lego blocks, learning ALL the show-tunes from the many colorific movie musicals of the 1970s and 80s. But more than anything else, I excelled at daydreaming.


I daydreamed myself right through a terrifying rape at the hands and breath and body and knife of a stranger when I was thirteen, and it was my exceptional daydreaming ability that saved my life. I floated out of my body, high into the clean Kansas air that June night, the way I often float in my dreams. In my dreams I can propel myself as though swimming, but on this night, I was effortlessly buoyed by my reptilian brain that took charge as my flesh lay frozen in the wet grass of a neighbors backyard. It was the first time my manager took over. My manager is the me that attempts to save us from failures-in-process as well as many, many potential and looming failures.


I resist her, my manager, and yet I also trust her more than anyone else in my life. I know when she is taking up space and I see evidence of her all around me at home and work. She makes lists, keeps notes and files, and tells me to sleep more. There's a maddening juxtaposition that exists for many survivors with chronic PTSD, like myself: extreme recklessness and impulsivity, coupled with deep and abiding confidence in my instincts. These qualities deal my manager fits, I am certain, as she tries to keep me organized and even. When I argue that it's NO BIG DEAL to run across the 405 freeway in Los Angeles, for a glorious banana cream pie, she gets testy.


My family and friends can likely relate.


Last year, I daydreamed myself into a new family across the Atlantic and promptly closed up shop on my US life to head for the UK. As my manager waved red flags wildly in my face, and screamed deaf reminders of past hasty relationship plunges, I plowed ahead, selling my life for pennies. Soon after my pension was abandoned and plane tickets purchased, it was revealed via text (!FLAG!) that the gentleman who had professed his undying love and proposed marriage to me after only a month (!FLAG!) had sadly come to find that his ex-girlfriend was quite healthily pregnant with his child. He had chosen not to tell me for several weeks. (flag...)


I'm singlehandedly keeping an imaginary flag factory in business.


Here's the SHIT YOU CAN'T MAKE UP: She had the baby boy on my damn birthday.

So here I am. Sifting through the rubble of this colossal failure -- one of my best yet! I'm sure there is much to learn and I intend to resist my flight reflex long enough to draw up some life principles for 2019 that relate to the logical reasons for this dumpster fire. When I take a break from getting wiser, I daydream about Wales: hiking Snowdon, and surfing Porthcawl. My nighttime dreams aren't nearly so pleasant. They mostly involve hiding in the dark and holding my breath and praying I won't be found by the one seeking me. Waking up in a cold sweat each morning makes me feel like a had a tiny little cardio workout, so that's something.


I'm going into the new year with an open heart, firmly locked in a cage. Sort of like a dance cage at a club -- fun, but untouchable. My personal goals are to:

A) Host one creative retreat in the UK for a group of 6-10 kickass people.

B) Find a therapist who isn't afraid of me.

C) Rediscover my jawline through exercise and clean eating.


My manager would be smiling smugly if she weren't busy looking for a cheaper apartment, hiding the whiskey, and stocking the fridge with leafy greens. As long as I'm doing my best, that's all that really matters.

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