I’ve been thinking about failure a lot lately.
It’s probably got something to do with the fair share of it popping up in my inbox. The last few weeks, its wince and brace every time my email refreshes.
I know it’s probably to be expected. Returning to the writing world after a decade long hiatus, there has been a real learning curve. (When I began staying how with my kids ten years ago, blogging wasn’t even a thing.)
I’ve finally reached the stage where I’m pitching projects to editors and agents. One non-fiction project particularly has been consuming all my thoughts. While sometimes just getting to that point is excruciating, the next step is even harder.
Mostly, it means getting acquainted with the word “No.”
In life, failure comes in so many forms. The job you didn’t get, the girl who didn’t go out with you. Every time you shoot a ball, talk to a stranger, speak your truth— you are putting yourself out there to be rejected.
Yet somehow, I feel energized.
Even as I know that I am shooting for the stars, (and why not? — more about this in a minute) every gut-wrenching “No” has only reinforced my resolve.
In the glow of my computer’s florescent screen, two valuable lessons have emerged. The first is that:
You Cannot Grow if You Do Not Fail.
Body builders know this. Ask that quivering sweaty mass of muscle at the gym why he lifts the same weight again and again. He is actually striving for muscle failure — to lift until quite literally, he can’t.
One of the beautiful mysteries of the human body is that when you push it to the edge, it responds by building itself back up. In biological terms, it’s called muscle fiber recruitment. Torn muscle tissue repairs and growers bigger and stronger than it was before.
In simple terms, muscle failure=growth.
I think the same is true for our brains. When we allow ourselves to fail enough times, when we get past the part where we want to quit, eventually the process appears.
That’s when you remember — This. I know this.
This is the part where it sucks, this is where I’m sure I will never find a job or win a tennis match or make a new friend. This is the part where I hate everything and everyone including myself…then finally — this is the part right before I learn something.
Even if all you learn is to pick yourself up and try again. Or you simply share your failure with someone else and they feel a little less alone in their own shortcomings. That’s a win.
Failure is not only useful, it’s necessary.
Because as you grow, you improve. Life starts to feel richer and more vibrant. Your ego stops driving the ship and suddenly you see:
You Don’t Always Have to Win to Win.
Sometimes, perspective is everything.
Baseball fans understand this. In the Major Leagues, an exceptional batting average is .300. Statistically speaking, this means the very best hitters in the world strike out 7 out of 10 times. Yet you will never see a professional player slinking away from the plate, quitting or throwing his hands up in defeat after one, two or even three strike-outs.
He studies his mistakes. He practices harder. In baseball — and in life, striking out is just part of the game.
It makes me wonder why we as adults heap such unrealistic expectations on ourselves? Why we feel we are never supposed to fail? Why it feels like the worst thing that could happen is to let anyone see us be vulnerable.
When I first started writing, I was scared to even say the words. (Who did I think I was calling myself a writer?) But people were much more supportive than I ever dreamed. Nobody is watching your every move. The worst judgment you will ever experience comes from inside your own head.
There is an argument to be made that one shouldn’t worry about the end result. That the process of any activity is where joy is found, that fulfillment stems from creation and movement. That outcome is only a by-product.
In other words, if you do what you love simply because you love it — that’s a win.
It always makes me think of the actress Tina Fey and one of her early Emmy Acceptance Speeches. As a newcomer in 2008, she looked out into the crowd of Hollywood’s most beautiful people and thanked her parents for raising her “to have confidence disproportionate with my looks and abilities.”
What if we could all strive to live that way? Why shouldn’t we all shift our perspective to believe that we can (and should) chase our wildest dreams?
When we realize it is fear that makes us risk averse and that succeeding isn’t the only way to “win” then the world opens up.
Failure can be a place you visit or a place you live. The difference is your perspective.
In life, there are no hacks that let you avoid risk or skirt failure. I am still improving my little passion project. And whether it ends up on a book store shelf or not — I am learning. I am proud of myself. I am doing something I love. In the end, that’s a win.
So do what nags at your heart. Reach for the stars.
Even if you fall on your face. Even if you if never make the starting team or pull down the big bucks. Even if it takes a hundred tries.
Live your life without fear. Because who knows? With enough practice and the right attitude, anything is possible.
If you don’t believe me, just ask Tina Fey’s mom.