We all fear it. We all try to avoid it. We all commit it. There really is no way around it, but when it happens, damn does it feel bad. Like coming out of the boxing ring defeated, or sulking off the baseball field having dropped the would-be-third-out to lose the game, or throwing the interception that allows the other team to march into your end zone, you replay the moment over and over in your mind thinking ‘if only I had done this instead of that’. Then you look for someone else to blame, ‘you know, had so-and-so blocked his man, that never would’ve been an interception’ or ‘I told my coach I needed work on catching flies’ or ‘hey, my boss should’ve known he’s been overworking me, and he gave me no budget, and the support staff was dismal. I had to do everything!’. But those excuses quickly dissolve because deep down, we know better. It was my fault. I screwed up. I made a mistake! Argh! I’m flawed! Son-of-a-bitch, I’m flawed! (I knew that, but I didn’t want anyone else to know. Now I’ve shown the whole world!)
Then the self-hate starts. Every girlfriend who ever dumped me was right! I am a loser! I suck! Every group of guys who picked me last to be on their team knew I had the capacity to be this sucky one day. Every human resources person who has thrown my resume away after a brief glimps was a hiring genius because they knew I would be a horrible addition to their office or any office for that matter. Woe is me. Let the dog piss on my leg, I am that low a creature that I deserve it. At least then, I’d be contributing something.
Of course that’s not true either. There is a difference between being a failure and experiencing failure.
We all experience failure and we do it from a very young age. Every infant who stares up at you with that cute little voice and says, “aba aah dah ooo gah” is a failure. He has something to say to you and he can’t. He speaks gibberish trying to emulate the language he hears you speaking everyday, and the little angel fails! Can’t do it. Wants to tell you your earrings are shiny and he likes them but it comes out “eeeee ooo mah-bah”, little failure that he is. When he’s hungry and wants to eat, he goes “ah-ah” fails to communicate then reverts to crying, because that is a proven tactic. Then, he tries to move. First he scoots his belly across the floor. Then he does the military crawl, belly on the floor, elbows doing the work. Then he realizes he can go faster on his hands and knees. The final goal of course is to do what he sees everyone else doing, which is to walk. Then one day, he pulls his chubby little butt off the floor by holding on to the coffee table and he stands. He looks around, proud of his accomplishment. Then he turns, lets go of the table and… falls flat on his chubby little ass. Failure! No walking for you!
But think of the courage it takes for someone who knows nothing of the world, to venture off into an act he has never once attempted before. It would be so much easier to wait for Mommy or Daddy to pick him up and carry him, but instead, this little person who’s been on the Earth the length of a mid-season TV show, decides it’s time to get up and try this walking thing. Granted, he doesn‘t know he’ll probably fall down on his fat bum, but he also doesn’t know he might fall forward on his tender little head either. In time, he’ll learn about both, but he doesn’t give up. He’s fallen on his butt a hundred times, and he’s fallen on his head at least a half dozen, and yet, he keeps pulling himself up on the coffee table and venturing away from it step by step, whatever may come be damned.
He has failed. Over and over again, he has failed. But he is not a failure. He’s not a failure because, despite his failed attempts, he keeps trying, keeps learning, each time he does better, goes farther, until one day, he’s running through the house so fast, his mother has given up her spinning class because chasing the kid is exercise enough.
Experiencing failure doesn’t stop him, and that is what prevents him from being a failure. The only real way to experience anything is to be open to the possibility of failure. Whenever something is new, or different, there is a good chance that we are going to fail at first. However, as the old adages go, practice makes perfect, and if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. By keeping at it, you not only lessen the experience of failing, you prevent yourself from becoming a failure. Yeah, yeah, we know that. It doesn’t make it any easier though, does it?
That shitty feeling stays with you like a punch to the gut. It hangs in your belly, then moves to your brain, then weighs on your soul. Wouldn’t it be great if, like in the movies, you could just commit yourself to something, become great at it, and, after a short musical montage, show the world you’re a hero not a zero! But it doesn’t work that way either, does it? Sometimes you try and try and try again, and no matter how hard you work nor how hard you try, you simply cannot succeed. Well, you know what, that’s okay. Not everyone is destined to be Lance Armstrong, including Lance Armstrong himself apparently. Sometimes the hard work doesn’t pay off. Sometimes you fail again anyhow. Does that make you a failure? Maybe in some people’s eyes, but it shouldn’t in your own. The only true way to be a real failure is to let the fear of failing prevent you from trying, from stepping out of your comfort zone to try something new, from taking the chance that she might say no, that you might drop the fly, that you might embarrass yourself in front of people, that you might lose, forget your lines, trip, fall, hit a the wrong note, get beaten, screw up, mess up, fuck up, throw up, or bust-up, be gawked at, laughed at, spit at or frowned upon. There is no reward without risk. You have no guarantee that you will succeed, but without taking the chance, you are guaranteed to fail. I know, we’ve all heard that before, so what to do after you’ve tried and fallen flat on your face?
I don’t know. You do replay it over and over in your head. You go through the five stages of grief. And eventually, you come to terms with it. You eventually have to shake it off and face the chance of it again. It sucks, but you have to. It’s the only way to keep on living. So you try and try again. In love, in work, in play. There really is no other option. Anything else is immediate failure. So you have to take that chance again, and when you do, at least take some comfort in knowing that you’re not alone. Even the most successful people in the world, the ones who seem perfect, fail, and they’ve been doing it off and on since they first tried to talk to their Mommy.
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Thank you for the reminder – failing does not make you a failure! In so many ways, we are all much more than most will ever see, more than what our careers and accomplishments might lead others to believe… I was taught at an early age to forgive myself my honest mistakes and to hold myself accountable for the not-so-honest ones, but we all need friendly reminders like this!