The Filament Blog

When At First You Don't Succeed...

Dec 20, 2022

The minute I saw the height of the step into the shower, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get in by myself. It was an inch too high for me to be able to pop on my own, so I sat with my forehead scrunched up, staring at the sandy colored tile as I tried to think of solutions. When none came to mind, I knew I would just have to try it to find out.

I carefully lined up the front rollerblade-like wheels of my chair to meet the lip and leaned onto my back tires. I held my breath as I slowly raised my front wheels up and over the threshold, finally exhaling after I felt them meet the tile again.

Now, just to pop over.

Palms on my tires, I threw my weight against the chair, hoping it might miraculously roll over. It didn’t. I tried again and again, without liftoff. “Maybe I’m not pushing hard enough…” I thought. I leaned back to gather momentum and gave a herculean push, but instead of pulling the chair forward, my bottom unexpectedly slid forward with the momentum, throwing me abruptly out of my chair and onto the tile.

I disentangled my own legs from under me with much effort while gathering myself emotionally. Falling out of a chair as a paralyzed person is scary - it’s easy to get hurt and difficult to get back in. And it’s utterly vulnerable, feeling like a turtle on its back or a fish flopping around out of water. I scooted over to the carpeted walk-in closet while I thought about next steps.

Mission: Get In The Shower had been replaced with Mission: Get Back In My Chair.

Looking around the spacious bathroom for inspiration, I saw a small bench sitting next to the shower. I scooted myself over, yanked my chair over next to me and placed one hand on the bench and one on the tire of my chair as I pressed myself up like a paralyzed gymnast on parallel bars. I cannot describe the relief I felt when I transferred from that bench back into my chair. One try down - but I still needed to get in that shower.

Over the next two days, I tried what felt like dozens of ways to get into the shower while staying at my friend’s house for the first time. Through the process I felt angry and discouraged, certain that I wouldn’t find a solution. But, necessity is the mother of invention, and I needed that bathroom, so I kept trying.

With every attempt and subsequent failure, I gained a speck of essential insight that informed my next try. I tweaked my angle of entry, or moved the bench an inch, adjusting in tiny, subtle ways until by the end of that second day I had a routine that worked.

Being disabled has taught me that I cannot know what I can or cannot do when embarking on a new endeavor. I have learned that trying, actually immersing myself in the situation, is the only way I can gather the essential information I need for success. Too many times I have declared something impossible, only for it to click on the seventy-third attempt.

All of us are always trying to produce a result - it’s what we do as human beings.

And what makes life so maddeningly interesting is that unless you are an omniscient being who knows the way to produce a result with perfect accuracy, you have just one course of action through this entire wild ride - trying.

We are tiny scientists going through the world, formulating infinite hypotheses and conducting countless experiments. And while it sounds cute when I frame it in such a depersonalized way, the truth is that this can actually be a really vulnerable process in practice. Failure to launch can feel very personal. It can also feel frustrating - sometimes, you just really want to get into the bathroom.

In a futile attempt to skip the whole vulnerable trying step, we turn to the planning, scheming, and strategizing ploy. It’s the “I just need to gather more information” decoy. We take webinars, and listen to ebooks and even read real books. We consult with friends, family and experts on the subjects, we Google stuff, and even after all of this preliminary work, we aren’t any closer to actually having what we want.

This is because the data you need to know how to succeed is packed inside of the experience of trying. In fact, it’s information that resides nowhere else. Attempts to produce results aren’t simply “failures”, even if they don’t work. They are rich, informative data-collection practices.

It’s by trying that we enter the world we are interested in succeeding in - we get new optics, new perspectives, and we are better prepared to succeed the next time. No matter how long I sat in my chair and stared blankly at the shower, I could not have found a solution without trying and failing for two days.

So, dear friend, I have some questions for you, as usual. What is one thing that you want, but that you are afraid of failing at? What is that thing that nags you? It may be a business or career move, or it may be a particular conversation with your partner, or maybe even trying a new hobby or skill. Whatever it is, I have an invitation for you: try it. Go collect some data. Fall flat on your face if you must (like I did), but try that thing knowing that you absolutely do not know if you’ll succeed. All you have to do is the best with what you have, and then take stock of the results.

You’re a scientist collecting data on the most important experiment - your life. And whenever you have courageously gone out into the world and come back without results, know you have not come back empty handed - you are imbued with greater wisdom and knowledge, and better prepared for your next brave attempt. I have no doubt that one day you’ll look down at your precious life experience and find to your own astonishment that, after all your trying, you have miraculously turned what was once lead into gold.

- Carson