Tuesday, March 03, 2009

frescos, failures and feedback

Michelangelo had been working on the Sistine Chapel for more than six weeks when he discovered that the surface of the newly painted ceiling was growing moldy—a result of his imperfect fresco technique. He had no choice but to scrape off the entire thing, everything he’d finished to that point, and start over. No doubt, this mistake seriously frustrated the artist who hadn’t wanted this project to begin with, but it also taught him an important lesson about the proper moisture level to use when applying the fresh plaster to a surface, a lesson Michelangelo learned well and employed over the next four years as he finished the ceiling. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling is an undisputed masterpiece and a reflection of the genius of the artist. But the fact that the work has lasted for five hundred years in remarkably good condition (despite many layers of wax, smoke, glue and ill-advised attempts at restoration) testifies of the artist’s eventual mastery of the difficult fresco technique and his ability to learn from his mistakes.

There’s a line I heard in a podcast recently. It’s a philosophy I am so struck with that I’ve taken to quoting it to my children (whether they want to hear it or not): “There are no failures, only feedback.” This means every mistake we make is not a failure but a learning experience, if we choose to see it correctly. When we blow it, we could choose to wallow in regret and frustration, but what’s the point if instead you can apply your hard-won feedback to future improvements?

I shared the line with Ethan on Saturday, when after weeks of practicing for a piano festival, he played poorly (and by poorly, I mean he forgot entire chunks of his pieces and was fighting back tears by the time he slunk back to his seat next to me in the audience). My heart ached for what he was suffering but I also knew that he could have practiced harder, especially during the last two weeks when he should have really been solidifying his memorization of the music and instead, he chose to do other things with his time. Ethan didn’t want to hear it, but after offering him my hugs, sympathy and unconditional love, I also reminded him that this was a good dose of “feedback” and he should decide what lessons he was meant to learn from the painful experience. He took it better than I thought and he admitted to making bad choices. The next day he was making a chart to help him remember to practice more consistently.

Since I don’t want to be the doctor who will not take her own medicine, I have been accumulating in my mind a list of the non-failures I’ve experienced lately. The feedback has been painful in each of these cases, but lessons learned the hard way are often the most lasting ones.

1. Don’t get cocky.
If your daughter (after months of failed feedback-rich attempts at potty training) finally, for the first glorious time, goes into the bathroom voluntarily and takes care of business by herself rather than messing in her underwear, you should smile in the moment, but don’t let it lull you into a false sense of security. There will be plenty of cleanups in your future. And just to prove the point, within the hour, your poor 10-year old son will be sick all over, so be at the ready with bucket and washcloth.

2. Resist temptation, especially when it’s disguised in pink bows
If you decide that when you return a borrowed dress to your friend, you’d like to give her girls a whole box full of dress-up outfits to replace the ones they lost in the fire, and you go to Savers and spend an hour filling your cart with satin and velvet and taffeta, don’t, under any circumstances, give in to the impulse to buy a few extra dresses for your own daughter to play with (that is, unless you are fully prepared to watch her turn into a one-woman fashion show and change her outfit every 10 minutes for the next two weeks).

3. You live in UTAH. Get used to it.
If you visit your friend Tara in Arizona in the middle of February and you have a wonderful time and the weather is mild and Springy and then you have to return home to a climate where palm trees do not sway freely in the breeze in February because IT”S WINTER YOU IDIOT, prepare yourself for an emotional let down.

4. The actual dental work is never the most painful part
If, after weeks of hardly being able to chew your food and drinking only warm water because anything cooler than tepid makes your head explode off your neck, you have major dental work done and after an hour in the Chair of Torture, you are thick in a pain-induced neural fog and you walk to the receptionist desk to pay for your new crown and the punishment that went with it, don’t be foolish enough to hand over your credit card first and ask for the bill second. You will undoubtedly be over-charged by more than a hundred dollars and then be forced to debate, for 30 minutes with a condescending billing secretary, the meaning of the words “Preferred Provider” and “Copay” and “Dental Insurance” when all you really want to do is get home, suck up some ibuprofen and cry yourself to sleep.

5. How to lose your pride...and all your junk
Let’s say, hypothetically, that you’ve arranged for a brilliant organizer named Lara to visit you and present an organizational seminar (which by the way, turns out to be very helpful). And just for the sake of argument, let’s say that this “Lara” offers to come to your home and take a look at your most frustrating organizational failures feedbacks and give you advice. If she tells you not to clean up your house for her...if she asks you not to tidy things up because it will defeat the purpose of giving her an honest look at your issues, DON'T listen to her! No, just kidding. Listen to her and leave your house in its natural state because you'll learn more that way. And go ahead and tell yourself “What the heck, what do I have to lose but my clutter and all my remaining personal dignity?” But be prepared to spend the next two weeks positively cringing every time you think of this woman you greatly admire walking through your home in its most chaotic, post-trip-to-Arizona-haven’t-had-time-to-unpack state. You’ll eventually get over it. Maybe. And you’ll have some great ideas to get your house into better shape for her next visit, that is if she’s not to disgusted with you to ever come back.

6. Free-lance writer beware
If you write an article for a magazine that pays really well but has been in the market for less than two years, be careful. You may see your words in print but never get paid because the publisher might get caught in the same financial crunch as everyone else and have to close up shop.

7. Don’t count those cute, furry, photogenic chickens before they’ve hatched
And if you are naïve enough to get excited about the magazine publication and the big paycheck without realizing that it’s not a sure thing, don’t (for heaven’s sake!) spend the money before you get it.

Even if it’s on a camera you’ve always wanted.

8. It's okay to be a squeaky wheel
And if you are naïve enough to anticipate the money and stupid enough to spend it before you get it, don’t forge ahead and spend many, many more hours researching and writing a second article for the same magazine. Or at least you should listen to your husband’s advice and tell them (BEFORE dutifully sending the article in on the day of your deadline) that you’ll be happy to send it to them once you’ve received a check for the first one.

9. D’oh!
If you find out, four days before the event, that your son has a French horn recital, don’t forget to ask him if he’ll be needing a piano accompanist for his solo.

10. Don’t overleaven the loaf
If you spend half a day making bread from a new recipe (interspersing kneading and rising with trips to music lessons and Knowledge Bowl practices) watch it closely at the end or you’ll get to see what happens when loaves rise too high and then fall disappointingly flat at the end.

11. Your son rocks
If you blow it on the bread, and you feel like complaining about all the time you wasted, you probably shouldn’t do it in front of your son Ethan because he will undoubtedly remember the advice you just gave him two days ago. And he'll say, "Mom, remember that time you said there are no failures, only feedback?" Yeah, he’ll use that line. In fact, he will put his arm around you and ask you what you’ve learned from the experience and you will have to admit that there are at least 365 different ways to screw up bread and you’ve just eliminated one more of them the hard way. And really, this is not that painful of a lesson, considering it didn’t involve public humiliation (unless you confess to it on a blog or something) and your son has been through worse this weekend and you are unbelievably proud of him for his sympathetic heart and you’re gratified to discover that sometimes he listens to your advice if only to be able to pass it back to you when you need to hear it too.


Allysha said...

Wise words, Julie. I bet you just divined most of them, right?

I love it when you show up in my reader! Have a good day.

Annette Lyon said...

I love you always find such great life lessons from art and art history.

I may have to use the "feedback" concept with my kids.

An Ordinary Mom said...

Feeback, not failures. I really, really like that.

jennie w. said...

I need to take this to heart.

Gill said...

Brilliant post Julie! I love the feedback theory - I'll be using that a lot in the future.

Jenna Consolo said...

Excellent post! I, for sure, live in a feedback-rich world lately. I love this quote.

Jill said...

OK, I've just found a new favorite blog. You are brilliant!

The Lazy Organizer said...

You'd better be joking about being worried that I got to see your home in it's natural state. If it makes you feel any better you can come over right now and see what mine looks like after being out of town for three days. Pretty much the same as it usually does. A mess!

I can't believe you never got paid for that beautiful article!!! How disappointing! Let's start a website called Good Advice where people can look up what to do/not to do in any situation. That way we can learn from other people's mistakes instead of making our own.

Annie said...

thanks for this. I can really relate to this...I'm linking to this today, okay?

Shalee said...

This post is a perfect example of why I love to read you. Other than the paid article thing, the organizational seminar and the French horn thing, I can completely relate.

Love your words of wisdom. I think I'll write that quote down now as a reminder that it's all good in end, even if you don't like how you got there.

My Ice Cream Diary said...

Wow! This was far better than so many of the memes out there. I loved reading this.

And I cannot believe you let Lara see your home in its natural state. I've been flriting with the thought of hosting one of her seminars but get anxiety each time. I just don't think I can do it.