I forget where I first heard this idea – possibly in an interview with Ellen Langer – but the basic gist of it was this: One of the first steps to understanding someone from a different background and experience than you is to make finer distinctions about them. Instead of saying, here is an Asian-American person, you might say, here is a Chinese-American man who moved from Shanghai when he was five, writes children’s books, and has long hair that he always puts up in a bun because it gets in the way when he’s eating. The antidote to lumping people into categories is actually having more and finer categories, so you start to see how multitudinous each category is.
This applies not just to people, but ideas, too. Applies to anything for which you are a novice, for which you have not yet payed close enough attention. Here’s Twyla Tharp again, from The Creative Habit, categorizing Failure:
First, there’s a failure of skill. You have an idea in mind but not the requisite skills to pull it off. This is the cruelest, crudest, most predictable form of failure. Your reach exceeds your grasp. In my case, it might involve having an insufficient vocabulary of movement, or not recognizing how an audience will read a particular gesture or move. It’s no different for a composer trying to write a fugue without a skill in counterpoint, or a writer constructing dialogue with a tin ear for how his characters speak. There’s only one solution to this type of failure: Get to work. Develop the skills you need.
Then there’s a failure of concept. You have a weak idea that doesn’t hold up under your daily ministrations. You torment the idea, an instead of growing it shrivels up. It could be a bad story idea, bad subject matter, bad casting, bad partners, bad timing. You scramble in the beginning to mask this fundamental error, hoping that maybe through guile and trickery you can redeem the work. But it catches up with you. Sows’ ears tend to remain sows’ ears. Get out while the getting’s good.
Tharp goes on to talk about failures of nerve, repetition, and denial as well. Simply having the added degree of resolution – these distinctions between different types of failure – takes you away from a fuzzy sense of This isn’t working to asking the question, Why isn’t this working? Or better yet, In what *ways isn’t this working?*
In some cases, I’ll need to read a bunch of novels to see how other authors handle transitions. Other times, I’ll need to step back and think about whether a character belongs in the story, or whether I’m the right person to be telling the story. The act of categorizing failure gets you to look closer, turns a vague quality judgment into something actionable.
And eventually, when these categories themselves become rigid and constraining, you’ll have to look closer again.