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August 7, 2007
I've just spent fifteen minutes on your web site. Shouldn't changing the expiration date of the card to which my account is billed be under "Manage My Account," or am I missing something?

Should be, the young woman on the phone agreed. She did not respond to the obvious edge in my voice; in fact, she sounded bored with the whole conversation. I can do it for you now, though. What's your account number?

With a few keystrokes on her end, the deed was done. I thanked her and we said our good-byes. I was still a little annoyed. Most business web sites are set up to keep the customer as far away from staff as possible. You're supposed to be able to do it all yourself. I find this irritating -- why should I do the work of someone else's employee? I have my own work to do. Besides, they do it better: in less than a minute, the young woman on the phone had accomplished what I had failed to master in fifteen.

Here was a key to my crabby mood: the word "failed." I knew, of course, that there was a more honest reason for my annoyance; it wasn't really a reasonable concern about the stewardship of my time that made me want to scold a young woman I didn't even know. I was angry at the web site because I had failed at using it. I judge myself harshly, looking uselessly around for something to blame when I fail, as if failure were a moral category. It's not. It's just a fact of human life. We fail at things sometimes. It's not such a big deal.

Every time we try to deny this, we get into trouble. It's usual these days to avoid the word failure altogether: it's judgmental finger pointing, we tell each other. There really aren't any failures. There are just challenges.

Oh, please. Let's not minimize the pain of not being able to do something you want very much to master, the sharp sting of it, the way foolish tears assemble behind your eyes and threaten a march down your face when it happens. We don't have to wear a damn smiley face every moment of every day. Embracing the truth of failure could de-fang it for us, let us know that it's okay to feel terrible about not being able to do something because the feeling will pass. You will try again. You will learn how. Having failed doesn't make us failures; no person is ever a failure. We may have failures -- and, for honesty's sake, I want very much to embrace the painful truth of mine -- but we never become one.
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