*last stop in this impromtu Ryan W. Bradley week. The man himself was kind enough to write this essay about his book and failure in general. Thanks to Lori Hettler from TNBBC's Next Best Book Blog for organizing this.*
by Ryan W. Bradley
My fears in life are more abstract than those of many people. I’m not afraid of spiders, snakes, or other creatures. I’m not afraid of death, which straddles the line of concrete and abstract. I have mild vertigo, that I’ve conquered on a fairly regular basis. But my real fear in life is failure. I fear living a completely un-noteworthy life, leaving no impact. I fear mediocrity.
Ironically, I feel a sense of failure surrounds everything I do. Even when I succeed at something I feel there is a failure in there somewhere. I didn’t do something as well as I could have, or there was something better that I couldn’t achieve. Don’t worry, I recognize this is ridiculous, and even if I don’t, my wife will remind me.
Not so ironically, failure is somewhat inherent with the jobs I’ve had in life. I have, in order, pumped gas (in two different stints), swept the floor of a mechanic’s shop, painted houses, done construction, managed an independent bookstore at the height of the recession, been a customer service representative in a call center, and now I work in shipping and receiving.
I am deathly afraid that I will wake up in twenty years, five even, and still be doing this kind of mundane work. It fills me with anxiety, with regret for not being better than I am, at whatever it would take to get me a better job. English degrees for the win!
When I was pumping gas, the job that, if nothing else, led to the writing of Code for Failure, a former employee of the station where I was working told me to quit and get as far away from pumping gas as I could. “This job will steal your soul,” he told me, and at the time I laughed him off. At the time I thought the job wasn’t great, but it wasn’t horrible. I was only a month or two into working there. By the time I quit, after nine months of pumping gas and changing oil, I realized what he meant.
Every job has this point, I now realize. The point where something clicks inside you and even if the job is completely benign you are filled with the realization that this particular job gets no better. And this is where being stuck in one’s own head really starts to get in the way.
Have I mentioned manliness yet? Isn’t it funny how the crappier the job the more manly it is perceived to be? Twelve hour construction shifts in the Arctic? Manly! Writer? Not so manly. Yet, these jobs, when one is no longer satisfied simply with a paycheck, become incredibly emasculating. Having a boss scream at you for not sweeping properly? Not so manly!
I basically open boxes for a living currently, so I have a lot of time to think about these things. Once a week I talk about them with a counselor because I find them that overwhelming. Think of me, if you must, as a blue collar, punk version of Woody Allen. Now we’re talking manly!
What does all this have to do with Code for Failure? Nothing and everything. The novel is about a time in my life when everything was up in the air. I was no longer a college student, and the only job I could get was pumping gas. I realized one day that most of the people I worked with were middle-aged men who had messed up hard in life to be pumping gas at their age. Here I was half their age and already feeling as hopelessly stuck as they were. If that’s not motivation to get re-admitted to college, I don’t know what is.
But ultimately, while the book is primarily about screwing up one’s life, it’s also about knowing how to take a chance, how to face the fear of mediocrity and conquer it, or at least cope with it, whether by doing coke with strangers, having sex for money, or falling in love.