“There’s no harm in trying.” I’ll be honest. I HATE that sentiment. To me, there is big harm in trying. And its name is Failure. Failure is such a nasty word, isn’t it? We are taught from a tender age that failure is simply not an option. We are taught to despise and be ashamed of failure. I only saw one big red “F” on a school assignment in all of my 17 years of education but that one scarlet letter was enough to solidify in me all of the pain and embarrassment and shame that came with failure. And I knew enough then to know that I never wanted to fail again.
And so, the fear of failure became my biggest enemy in life. I was fairly athletic as a youngster, this is hard to imagine now I know, and I loved playing all sorts of sports during gym class. Except one: volleyball. I despised volleyball. It was unfortunate that all of my closest girl friends at school happened to love that one sport but I would always sit in the sidelines cheering them along, rather than try out for the team and join them on the court. Why? Because I had bopped that rubber ball just enough times in gym class to know that I was not naturally gifted at volleyball and therefore, I would not be playing it in my lifetime. I refused to fail. I refused to not make the team. I refused to try.
Volleyball is a silly example and I use it now only because the more serious examples of the fear of failure in my life are a little too real, a little too vulnerable, a little too fresh even now, for me to own up to in black and white. But I can guarantee you my fear of failing stopped me from having some pretty grand adventures and even stunted me a bit in life.
I carry this fear with me today. I feel it nipping at my heals each time I try a new recipe for friends or am forced to be all Pinteresty and crafty for Levi’s class. I fear failure even at the little stuff that most people laugh off.
This past weekend we had some dear friends over for lunch after church. It was one of those rowdy and chaotic meals where kids were everywhere and banging into everything and we were all crammed into our dining room, trying to eat in peace while listening to all manner of noises from all over the house and trying to determine if the noise was big enough to merit someone investigating it. I loved it. After our meal the kids begged to run around outside and once we gave them the rundown about how the big pretty plant at the back fence will, in fact, EAT YOU if you get near it, we released the hounds and let them run free. They immediately gravitated towards Levi’s big riding truck. For a while, we denied them the thrill of running each another over and getting stuck in the sand pit that is our backyard but finally we relented and let them take turns riding the monster around.
One of our friends’ daughters, Molly, although the youngest of the bunch refused to be left out and so her father dutifully plopped her in the truck for her turn and then jogged along beside her while she “drove” the truck. Molly was elated! The look on her face was one of sheer joy and happiness. She cackled away as the boys all chased her and jumped out of her way. Molly was having the time of her life and Molly was a terrible driver. She spent more time running into the side of our house or the various fruit trees that litter our yard than she did actually making it from point A to point B, but she was in heaven. She was failing beautifully and having the time of her young life doing it.
When the truck had been put away and the dishes were being cleaned up, I found myself remarking that I wished I loved doing anything in life as much as Molly loved driving that truck. Later as I reflected on that moment again, I realized there is something that I love doing that greatly but I have let myself stand on the sidelines of it for years because I am so afraid to fail at it.
This year Greg and I have both taken our fears of failure head on. Ironically enough, we both gave each other Christmas gifts this year that point us right at our fears of failure and are now daring each/cheering each other on as we back that demon down one step at a time. Greg started a beginning ceramics class last night at a local art school. And he is terrible at it. His first attempt at the potter’s wheel produced what his instructor called a “peanut dish”. Turns out the ceramics that Greg adores and collects are pretty difficult to create. And while he came home frustrated and irritated at his failure, this morning I caught him examining one of his favorite ceramic coffee mugs, marveling at its design and trying to figure out how exactly you make a lump of clay come to life on a spinning wheel. His failure last night didn’t produce devastation this morning. It cultivated curiosity and respect and renewed determination in him.
Earlier this week I started taking an online writing class. It was Greg’s gift to me and because he is a wise man, he picked a school for me that costs much more than I would have chosen for myself. He’s daring me to put some skin in the game. I don’t have to create a masterpiece but I do have to do the work each week. And the work is pretty intimidating. It’s a lot of writing. And some of my classmates have a lot more experience than I do and they definitely have more confidence than I do right now. But I love writing. It brings me life. It’s my big riding truck in life. And even if I smash into the side of the house every single time I take the wheel, I want to fail laughing my butt off with glee the entire time.
A good friend of mine has been wanting to return to ballet for a while now. She hasn’t taken a dance class in over 15 years and it seems a little silly to her to be a grown woman with two kids, trying to master a perfect pirouette. But it will bring her joy to try. So that’s what she’s going to do. She’s just going to try and not care quite so much about failure or success. Or how she looks in the mirror compared to the other dancers around her. She’s her only audience. Success will be showing up each week and dancing her heart out.
Tackling our fear of failure isn’t so much about closing our eyes and pretending it doesn’t hurt when we don’t get it right. Tackling the fear of failure begins by redefining success. And success is showing up behind the potter’s wheel every week, taking our place at the barre and focusing on our own eyes in the mirror and submitting little pieces of our soul to a roomful of Internet strangers. Take a deep breath and be afraid to fail.