In my last newsletter, I shared some thoughts about iteration and how Yoda (yes, that Yoda) and Samuel Beckett preach similar philosophies. I talked about how “fail better” is not just something we must do in our creative work, but also with our very humanity. To become better humans, we must iterate at the soul level.
The one thing I didn’t address was the fundamental precursor to failing better, which is that first, we must fail. This means that sooner or later iteration is going to be uncomfortable.
Lesson #4: Get Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not going all Pollyanna and pretending that failure is a good thing. Let me be very clear, if you’re a high-achiever—which I’m guessing you are, or you wouldn’t have found DIY MFA in the first place—failure is probably painful for you.
I feel that way, too. Failure is hard. It’s uncomfortable. In fact, it downright sucks. Even when we know that failure will help us create better work in the future, that knowledge doesn’t make it hurt any less in the present.
Sometimes we have to embrace the power of suck.
Every January first, I like to name the new year, and at the start of 2018, I dubbed it the “Year of Suck.” Naming each year has nothing to do with setting goals or intentions; it’s not as though I wasn’t trying to make 2018 the worst year ever. Also, let’s be real: compared to the venomous basilisk that has been 2020 thus far, 2018 was like a fluffy baby unicorn.
No, naming the new year has always been about permission. It means that I embrace everything that year might throw in my direction, from the good, to the bad, and even the downright ugly. I know, at the start of 2018, that in order to reach my goals I was going to have to work harder than I had ever worked in my life. I knew that there would be little to know breathing room between when I finished one big project and started on a new one. In other words, I knew that if I wanted to take DIY MFA to the next level, 2018 was going to have to suck. So I decided to embrace it.
We live in a culture of achievement, where success is measured in terms producing more work or performing at a higher level. It’s hard to embrace mistakes or take calculated risks, when these things run counter to what most people see as success. In our society, success is part of a binary system: you either succeed or fail, win or lose. Yet what we fail to see is that as long as we are in the game, failure is irrelevant. It’s not about winning or losing; when we play the game to our best ability, we can win, learn… or both.
So, if failure isn’t a bad thing, if it allows us to learn and improve our skills, why do we resist it? I believe failure requires a proper container. In order to reap the benefits of failure as a learning tool, we have to accept that at least for a little while, things are going to suck. There were several moments during 2018 (AKA the Year of Suck) when I couldn’t stomach any more failures. For every step forward, it felt like I was taking ten steps back, and there were times when I was about to say “enough is enough!” and quit.
But I didn’t.
This wasn’t because I possess a superhuman level of fortitude. It was because I knew that the suck was contained, that it wouldn’t last forever. I knew that on the other side of 2018, I could slow down and things would get better. I might have piled an unreasonable workload on myself for that year, but I did it with a calculated purpose in mind, so I could refine and improve certain aspects of my creative work through rapid iteration. I also made an intentional decision that at the end of 2018, that breakneck pace would stop.
By declaring 2018 the Year of Suck, I gave myself permission to work ridiculously hard for a contained span of time. When things got painful—and believe me, there were some excruciating times—I could step back and tell myself: “This is normal. It is supposed to suck. That’s what this year is all about.” And if things went better than expected, I could count it as a happy surprise.
It can be deeply satisfying to work hard for a compressed period of time.
The power of suck reminds me of when I was in college and my favorite Math professor would give us 71-hour take-home exams. (Yes, you read that right: 71 hours.) She would hand out the exams at the end of class on a Friday, and we would have until the beginning of class on Monday to complete it and hand it in.
While this might sound to some like a unique form of torture, it was actually an effective teaching strategy. The exams were designed almost like puzzles and they designed, and we could complete them in a few hours… once we figured out that central key aspect of the puzzle. We weren’t supposed to work on the exam for all 71 hours, but we were supposed to think about the puzzle for the entire weekend.
And that’s exactly what ended up happening. I would find myself mulling over the a number theory proof during brunch at the dining hall, or I might get a jolt of inspiration from the bathroom tiles while I was brushing my teeth. Would I rather have been hanging out with my friends on a Saturday night? Of course. Did it suck that spent the entire weekend thinking about those math problems? Absolutely. But every time that professor taught a new class, I would rush to sign up because I knew she would challenge me to do my best thinking.
We live in culture that values comfort over challenge. When someone or something pushes us to question our mental status quo, we often resist, saying it makes us “feel uncomfortable.” Or we might avoid speaking up for what’s right, because we don’t want to make the people around us uncomfortable.
What we often fail to see is that growth cannot happen in a state of complacency. The only way to improve ourselves as writers—and as human beings—is to get comfortable with discomfort and embrace the power of suck.
Your comfort zone has a malleable membrane.
Our comfort zone is like a bubble. It is a circle and we are the dot at the center. Everything inside that circle is comfortable; everything outside, uncomfortable. We often hear that cliched advice that we need to push ourselves “outside our comfort zone,” but I don’t think that’s true. Instead, we need to move that center dot closer to the outer edge of the circle. When we do that, the circle will stretch and expand, forming a newer, larger comfort zone.
But here’s the catch: Humans are adaptable creatures. As soon as we move toward the edge of our comfort zone (and closer to the dis-comfort zone), the boundary between the two will shift. The line between comfort and discomfort is not fixed, it is a malleable membrane that can grow and expand over time.
This means that if we want to continue to grow, we must dance on that ledge by the chasm that separates comfort from discomfort. The more we push ourselves to expand the limits of our comfort zone, the wider that zone will become, and the more we must continue to challenge ourselves.
Whatever your next big hurdle might be—from finishing a draft to revising a manuscript, from querying agents to building your platform—I want to challenge you (lovingly, of course) to push the limits of your comfort zone. This also applies to goals in your day job, in your personal life, or even just surviving quarantine.
Will there be growing pains? Of course. But it doesn’t last forever. Just like my Year of Suck, when we push ourselves to the edge of our comfort zone, we recognize that there will be discomfort, but that comfort isn’t permanent because our comfort zone naturally expands. So next time something in your life, work, or writing brings up feelings of discomfort, give yourself permission to sit on that ledge and enjoy the view.
Gabriela Pereira is an author, speaker, and entrepreneur who wants to challenge the status quo of higher education. As the founder and instigator of DIYMFA.com, her mission is to empower writers, artists and other creatives to take an entrepreneurial approach to their education and professional growth.Gabriela earned her MFA in writing from The New School and speaks at college campuses and national conferences. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and book industry professionals and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community.
Gabriela earned her MFA in writing from The New School and speaks at college campuses and national conferences. She is also the host of DIY MFA Radio, a popular podcast where she interviews bestselling authors and book industry professionals and author of the book DIY MFA: Write with Focus, Read with Purpose, Build Your Community.