On Failure, Forces & The Gentle Way

Jan 24

I found two work-related goals scribbled in the page margins of a pocket notebook from the beginning of 2012. 1) I wanted to primarily focus my design time on getting the hazy-around-edges NewSpring identity system under control (via a thorough brand audit and re-templating project) and 2) I wanted to hire a few designers and developers to help shoulder the load and prepare for the growth we knew was on the way (we’ve practically doubled in attendance since then).

These two tasks would, in theory, enable me to focus much of 2013 on our website and copywriting, both of which were adequate, but suffering from a lack of proactive design and vision. In the absence of proactivity, reaction rules the land. And reactionary design is typically poor design in the longrun.

But Plans Change…

Halfway through 2012 we restructured the team, which restructured me to the bottom of the org chart. This was driven by multiple factors, the most pressing of which was my unreliability as a leader of people. By this point in the year, my new hire goal had been a successful one, and we’d added some fantastic team members to the mix. Two of those hires were appropriately promoted to lead design and web development, and I continued to work on the brand audit/re-templating project.

I don’t want to gloss over how difficult that transition was (and still can be)—I wrote about it in October—but I do want to highlight what time, patience, and a commitment to discipline can teach. Nothing is wasted, and this transition has been a healthy, educational one. Difficult, but good.

Don’t fight forces, use them.
Buckminster Fuller

Right now, I’m working on copy and code. My workday is almost wholly focused on the things I am best at, and, not too coincidentally, the areas where I can have the most possible impact at NewSpring. 2013 will be the year of wireframes, writing, and web. Just like I hoped it would be a year ago. The goal remains; the landscape’s changed.

Alter Your Perspective, Alter Your Outcome

Circumstances are, largely, beyond us. There are only a handful of things we can actually control. Beyond those things, success is a matter of managing the ebb and flow of those outside forces. Forces can be enemies, or they can be useful tools.

This is the philosophy of the Japanese martial art of Judo—the “Gentle Way”. Judo is not gentle because it isn’t violent, or effective, or powerful; it can be all of those things. Judo is gentle because it aims for maximum efficiency through minimal effort. It uses forces to achieve success. Judo is the gentle way for the practitioner.

[Resisting] a more powerful opponent will result in your defeat, whilst adjusting to and evading your opponent’s attack will cause him to lose his balance, his power will be reduced, and you will defeat him. This can apply whatever the relative values of power, thus making it possible for weaker opponents to beat significantly stronger ones.
Jigoro Kano

Kano’s theory was called “jū yoku gō o seisu” or “gentleness controls hardness”. My friend Blaine once told me something similar, while gently reminding me not to be so mechanical…

Machines fight and then break in conflict. Humans flex and grow.

There is a way in which we can bow up to circumstance, fight against change, strive for our ideas of what should and should not be. And often it is necessary to stand your ground for deeply held beliefs. But in my case, had I bucked authority in mid-2012, or fled to another job, I would have failed to achieve the objectives I put to paper at the beginning of that year.

If I had adopted a rigid stance, sure of myself, angry at the world, I would have fought, broke, and, ultimately, lost. I would have sacrificed my mission because I was unwilling to alter my tactics. Focused on the moment, and forgotten the endgame.

But in adjusting, in stewarding the tension and forces confronting me, and in being willing to flex, change, pivot, and grow, there is much freedom.

And, it turns out, much victory.


  1. nick

    Another elegant insight into the difficult work of letting Jesus shape the heart. Thankful for your willingness to “bend” and remain an enormously positive member of our team.

  2. “Who are you? ” said the Caterpillar. This was not an encouraging opening for a conversation.

    Alice replied, rather shyly, “I—I hardly know, sir, just at present—at least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have been changed several times since then.”

    “What do you mean by that?” said the Caterpillar sternly. “Explain yourself!”

    “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, sir,” said Alice, “because I’m not myself, you see.”

    “I don’t see,” said the Caterpillar.

    “I’m afraid I can’t put it more clearly,” Alice replied very politely, “for I can’t understand it myself to begin with; and being so many different sizes in a day is very confusing.”

    “It isn’t,” said the Caterpillar.

    “Well, perhaps you haven’t found it so yet,” said Alice; “but when you have to turn into a chrysalis—you will some day, you know—and then after that into a butterfly, I should think you’ll feel it a little queer, won’t you?”

    “Not a bit,” said the Caterpillar…

    “What size do you want to be?” it asked…

    “Well, I should like to be a little larger, sir, if you wouldn’t mind,” said Alice, “three inches is such a wretched height to be.”

    “It is a very good height indeed!” said the Caterpillar angrily, rearing itself upright as it spoke (it was exactly three inches high).

    “But I’m not used to it!” pleaded poor Alice in a piteous tone. And she thought to herself, “I wish the creatures wouldn’t be so easily offended!”

    “You’ll get used to it in time,” said the Caterpillar; and it put the hookah into its mouth and began smoking again. (From “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll Chapter Five)

    And if we look at the caterpillar and Alice again in the Tim Burton movie version of “Alice,” she is saddened to see him disappear into the very chrysalis she predicted—having to watch it was painful, you see. It was rather like watching a death of sorts and being unable to stop it—even though one hoped it was going to be all right in the end.

    It is rather like being a parent, this changing thing. Watching our children struggle to know themselves—we, standing by, wanting so badly to intervene. But we don’t—if we are smart. We struggle to simply watch and wait. Watching them change—figuring it out. It is painful. But oh what a joy it is when the chrysalis opens. Each time.

    Again from the Burton movie, it is rather like being Alice—on the sea—with that butterfly over her shoulder. In the end, it doesn’t matter who is Alice or the caterpillar. We’ve both changed by the struggle.

  3. Favorite Mama Dalton comment ever. Proud to be a Blankenship.

  4. At some point, I have to agree with you. I was always positive about failing, I never really considered failure as a hindrance. Instead, I use it as a motivation.

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