Michelangelo apparently said that ‘the greater danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.’
Well, it’s all very well for him to say that. I don’t know how many misses he had, but I’m guessing his hits made up for them. Once you have success under your belt, past failures become much easier to accept. They no longer define you. And new failures are easier to sustain, knowing that you have achieved something; that you can.
The odds (and Thomas Edison’s many experiments with light bulbs) might suggest that the longer you keep trying, the more likely success becomes. But eventual achievement is, of course, never guaranteed. Waiting for that success can be a bit like ‘the boy stood on the burning deck’. If you intend to hold out on the deck as the smoke grows thicker and the flames lick higher, you need to increase your chances of avoiding the boy’s fate. You need to build good resilience to disappointment: a bounce-back-ability that will enable you to sustain the bruising from all those misses. To do this it helps to develop a deep sense of being ‘good enough’ no matter what you fail at, or how many times you ‘fail’.
It can also help to know that not all hits are palpable or immediate. What you have done may appear to be worthless, but could catalyse something powerful in the world without you ever knowing. Trusting in such a possibility can be a comfort, but doesn’t help your self-esteem or pay your bills. Your work may achieve something powerful in the world not now, but next year; in ten years’ time or even after you have died. But it may not.
Sometimes there just isn’t enough resilience to draw on; bounce-back-ability gets squashed. It just does. Self-awareness is priceless, because these are the times to notice and attend to. You need to decide whether you will keep playing in hope of winning, or concede defeat and walk away before your resilience goes overdrawn. There is never a right answer, and no-one else can tell you which you should do. But if your soul can be still and curious and open enough, your intuition may let you know through a deeply felt sense, or perhaps through your dreams, whether the time is right to keep striving, or whether you need space to rest, grieve and replenish.
When you feel robust enough to stand yet another disappointment, it is good to keep aiming high – even when you repeatedly miss. Sometimes it’s worth a thorough and non-self-blaming exploration of what the missing factor could be – which is when kind, honest and generative input from others can be invaluable. And sometimes it’s just a case of persisting. But when you need to restore your confidence, or need time for your wounds to heal, it is usually better to design your life in such a way (at least for now) that you aim low, and hit.