FAILURE IS FOR LOSERS
How many times have you failed in your life? I’m not going to judge you, promise. You don’t even have to tell me, you can just count it up on your fingers (and toes if you run out of fingers) and hold that number in your mind. Got it? Okay, I’ll go first, and like I said, you don’t even have to go. Okay, ready?
That’s how many times I have failed. Wait, I’m not bragging. Remember your number? Well, forget it. Your number is zero, too.
Here it is: there is no such thing as failure. Write it down. In ink. Tape it to your bathroom mirror. Tape it to your friend’s bathroom mirror. It’s that important and you need to remember it. That’s where important things you want to remember go, on the bathroom mirror.
There is no such thing as failure and to get to the heart of that truth let’s back up and look at my original question: how many times have you failed in your life? What came into your mind with that question? Was it an image of the tragic collapse of your last romantic relationship, complete with embarrassing text messages you can’t take back and tearful 3:00 am phone calls? Or maybe the brutal flame-out post-college when you took that pricey education and deleted it off your resume so you could get a job at a coffeeshop that otherwise would’ve turned you away for being “over qualified?” Or when you had to file for bankruptcy? Or attend the funeral of someone that, no matter how much you loved them, you couldn’t save from cancer? Or the first time your kid screamed, “I hate you!” to your face? Or the first time your kid got arrested? Or the first time you got arrested?
Ugh, those are all brutal. Brutal, brutal, brutal. But let me ask you another question: and then what did you do? Did you get up the next morning, maybe make coffee, maybe eat a bowl of cereal? Did you call in to work? Maybe you couldn’t, so you just went to work. Maybe you cried in the bathroom a few times and then maybe later you laughed at a co-worker’s joke in spite of yourself. And then you got cheap Chinese take out and ate it out of the box while watching Deep Space Nine reruns.
And then what did you do?
My point is, your story didn’t end with those terrible, awful, painful events. I’ve made some huge mistakes in my life, and I bet you have too. Some of those mistakes have consequences. And then you eat cereal and get on with trying to clean up the mess or live the rest of your life or apologize to the people you care about.
Here’s an example of a mistake I made: when I was about 9 years old I had my first big wipe out on my big kid bike, you know, two wheels, three gears, banana seat, coaster brakes. There was a nice hill on the street where I grew up and the bottom of it was right at my driveway. So my friends and I rode our bikes up to the top of the hill and then pedaled as hard as we could and coasted to the bottom and were probably going about a million miles an hour (because, incidentally, between the ages of 7 and 15 is the only time you are capable of riding that fast on a bike). One time I got going really fast and just as I neared the bottom of the hill I thought, “hey, I should probably get home for dinner” or something equally as practical, so I slammed back on my coaster brakes and hit a hard right into the gravel driveway. Of course, gravel+brakes+turns=tears which is exactly what happened. Tears and blood and carrying on until my mom came out like the Flash to see who was murdering her baby. And I got cleaned up and maybe got a special bandaid with pictures on it and a kiss on my sore paws and probably extra ice cream for dessert.
And then, because this makes perfect sense, I never rode my bicycle again. I was a failure at riding a bike, because I had fallen. The end.
No, just kidding. I hadn’t failed. I made a mistake. I mistakenly judged my speed and my ability to brake and the surface on which I was attempting to brake. Know how many times I’ve done a hard turn on gravel while slamming on the brakes since then? Zero. (Because I am a smart cookie.) The purpose of mistakes is to learn. A mistake is simply a very solid realization of our limits. Sometimes we have to make a mistake a lot of times in order to learn from it. Ever notice that most kids are covered in bandaids and bruises? It’s not because they’re accident prone, it’s because they’ve taken up skateboarding or jumping on trampolines or trying to figure out how to parachute off the roof. Bandaids and bruises are the side-effect of kids learning their limits, which is a huge part of growing up.
There is something in our human brains that seems to equate failure with finality. But that simply isn’t true. My way of working around that, and getting over being terribly risk-adverse, is to just remove “failure” from my vocabulary. Honestly, I haven’t missed it. I just use “mistake” instead. Like, “I made a mistake.” It’s also great because the almost automatic follow-up is, “well, everybody makes mistakes.” And it’s great because it’s true! Everybody doesmake mistakes! I do, you do, we all do, no judging here, we’re all in the same boat now let’s pour that bowl of cereal and get on to the next thing.
To really get this concept, that failure is a fallacy, you have to be willing to look at the big picture. Like, thereally big picture, like, you’re whole life. Because the importance of the mistakes you’ve made or the times where things didn’t work out the way you wanted or when, let’s be honest, it all blew up in your face can only be appreciated in context.
“Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.” —John Lennon
Context: I didn’t stop riding my bike. And that wasn’t the last wipe out or crash I had. But I kept riding, off and on, until I got the crazy idea around age 28 that I’d like to one day ride my bike a very long distance, say, from San Francisco to Yosemite and back. It took several more years of dreaming, and then saving my money to buy a touring bike, and then lots of time planning and training and then when I was 31 I did just that. And you know what happens on the way to Yosemite? You have to ride several miles of extended, steep downhills that twist through hairpin turns on a single lane highway that you are sharing with double-decker tour buses and all of the shoulder is gravel. Nope, didn’t crash. Because I know you don’t hit gravel when you’re going fast or turning, so I stayed off the shoulder even though I was on a bicycle and let all those buses take wide passes around me.
We can’t judge the story of our life until it’s complete, and it’s too late then anyway, so I’m going to go ahead and tell you that it’s safe to just assume it’s not a failure. And that goes for everyone else’s life, too. It’s frighteningly easy to look at where someone else is at, maybe they don’t have a good job, or even a job at all, maybe they’re making mistakes in their personal life, or they talk big but can’t ever seem to show up, and call them a failure. But you really don’t know. You can’t know.
Our society is full of stories of people that looked like a failure at one point in their life (Michael Jordan getting kicked off the high school basketball team, Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, etc) who then went on to be such a huge success that their very name is now synonymous with the word. At the time of their initial “failure” you wouldn’t have been able to say to them, “gee, Bill Gates, don’t stress about dropping out of one of the most prestigious educational institutions in the world that you should feel privileged just to be associated with that you worked really hard to get into including maybe getting yourself into massive debt. No big deal! It’s all gonna be fine, I swear!” Bill Gates probably would’ve punched you.
At the time, this “failure” may have seemed like the end of the world, but taken in context, it becomes an integral part of the story. So important, in fact, that the rest of the story may have been much, much different without it.
You know why Michael Jordan is so good at basketball? One word: practice. You know why he practiced so much? Because he had something to prove to those jerks that kicked him off the team (and yeah, he also really, really, really loves basketball). Thank god he got kicked off the team. He might have just been a mediocre player who then went on to discover he also really loved accounting and none of us would’ve ever heard of the man who revolutionized basketball.
So, think again of all those “failures” that initially came to your mind. Is there any way for you to see them in context? Some are surely very far in your past, and maybe you still feel bad about them. Try to look at them again, and this time look for the context, for the way they fit into your larger story. What things have happened since then? Who did you meet, what job did you take, what skills did you learn, what adventures did you have because that other thing, the one you wanted so very badly at the time, didn’t work out and now you wouldn’t trade the world for it?
Viewing our “failures” through the lens of context not only makes them easier to bear, it also allows us to actually learn from them. They’re not “failures,” they’re mistakes, and mistakes are our greatest teachers, if we allow them to be. This makes mistakes incredibly valuable. Not something to hide from in shame, but something to look at closely, curiously.
One last thing about me and bicycles (for today, anyway): on the day that I had to ride that crazy ass highway with the gravel shoulder I stopped in a small town to buy supplies. On the way out of the grocery store a woman asked me, “riding into Yosemite?” I replied that I was and she told me to be careful on the road because a cyclist had just died the week earlier.
“Did they get hit by a car?” I asked nervously.
“No,” she replied. “He hit a turn too hard and just skidded off the edge of a cliff.”
Being able to see my mistake in context, as a cyclist, allowed me to learn how to ride more intelligently and more safely. I learned from the mistake and also was able to continue doing something that I loved because I didn’t waste any time feeling ashamed of my mistake. I didn’t bother with self-judgement, instead I moved forward using self-analysis. Ultimately, because I viewed my mistake through context I also experienced gratitude for my mistake. I saw how a mistake, which when viewed through context just becomes anexperience (an event, minus judgement), actually improved my life, maybe even saved my life.
I am asking you to make not just one, but two gigantic leaps here and it is totally fine if you don’t feel able to. The most important thing is just that you think about it. Anyone who has known me for over 10 years will know that I am not exaggerating when I say that I used to be possibly the most negative person in the world. As far as I could tell everything had a downside to it and I was more than happy to tell you all about it. I deeply believe that discernment is a tool we can all use to better ourselves and the world around us, but that is not the same as being a great big ol’ Negative Nancy. I believe it was bell hooks who said something (that I am roughly paraphrasing here because I don’t remember the exact words but the idea struck me like a shot) about how we are only allowed to criticize if we also can offer a suggestion, otherwise please zip your lip.
My point is that process is like a really awesome iceberg, it takes a goddamn long time but it is totally worth it and well…awesome, like I said. So if you are thinking, “screw this Pollyanna nerd and his theories,” that is cool with me. But I already got you, bro, my words are in your head now and they’re gonna bounce around in there for maybe ten years but then one day, one day you might find yourself thinking, “thank god I fell off my bike that one time…”