On the Willingness to Fail

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The bad news is, a big part of becoming an adult – gaining self-respect – is in doing things you’re afraid of, or things you don’t want to do. The good news is, doing these things gives you the chance of obtaining larger, almost intangible comforts. Touching things you’d always thought you’d miss with outstretched fingers.

Watch a baby and you’ll see a person experiencing a shattering number of failures. In infancy, a child is learning at a phenomenal rate, which means they’re constantly falling down, putting things in their mouths they shouldn’t, etc. Failures discourage them very little or not at all. But as they grow up, these babies start to lose their willingness to fail. More mature people are apt to learn less because they’re willing to risk less. But an infant is fearless in the world.

We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. Our fear of failing stymies our growth and narrows our personalities. Like, “No, Sally, don’t be stupid. It would be so unlike you to do a yoga retreat in Bali.” Or, “I’m never going to be wealthy. I’m never going to own my own home. So why even try?”

Maybe we should try to put a positive spin on the presence of our fears. Like they’re a reminder of what’s at stake. Which is one little life. One little life burning like a star briefly before it goes out. One short shot of not-to-be-repeated, never-again, nothing-quite-like-you you.

The long and short of it being, if you want to keep on learning – and growing – you must keep risking failure. This is brave behavior. It requires you to do things despite not wanting to do them. This is how we cultivate self-respect, and self-respect is a habit. Actions repeated, and slogged through, and worked on. Elbow grease and all nighters.

A person with self-respect is not bothered by the opinions of others. Maybe she’s a higher up at Marie Claire, holding a phone in the crux of her ear and shoulder, ordering a bouncy castle for her kid’s sixth birthday. She fights doubts and fears, with rain pattering on the window of her corner office after hours, the faint sound of a vacuum in the foyer, juggling a multitude of lives and roles. But the difference is – and this is the world of difference – she casts her doubts and fears aside.

To have self-respect is to have everything. It’s to not be trapped within oneself, constantly afraid the world will ask something of you, or discover you for a fraud.

To be without self-respect is like being an unwilling audience to a your own failings, with fresh footage being constantly flushed in. Like watch this scene where you procrastinate again, watching Netflix instead of working on your novel; or this next scene, see the hurt on X’s face here; and this night when you got back to San Diego – watch how you screw this one up.

The thing about accepting responsibility for one’s life, and not in a ho-hum manner, but like wresting your Fate from the hands of Life, is with that, we have everything. The best experiences of our lives. The hardest things, and the things we’re proudest of. Unfortunately, these things were probably also some of the things we wanted to do the least. Sure, after you’ve finished the article, it’s fun, but writing it may have been as comfortable as shoving bamboo shoots under your fingernails.  Isn’t that true?

In my perfect world, self-respect would be collected by surfing all day, meanwhile there’s somehow a screen flying in front of me playing episodes of Archer. But what I realize, well into another year, a good number of years since college, is that there’s a woman I want to be, and not working on becoming her, is harder than actually trying to become her. It’s a bitter pill for us to swallow – knowing we have potential and things we could do with our lives, and letting those things miss us, like a sailboat always sailing just a little ways off from shore.

By middle age, for most of us there will be a catalogue of things in our heads that we tried once, but were too afraid to try again. Or things we tried, and our performance wasn’t good enough for our egos, so we left them in the dust. But what if we, like infants, were unafraid of failure? What would we try?

In The Alchemist, Paulo Coehlo wrote, “To realize one’s destiny is a person’s only obligation.”

There have been times when I’ve felt that this idea was in-my-bones, one of the truest things-true.  I feel the truth of it again. Because I would rather try and be the woman who reads an hour every day, who writes often, even though she often doesn’t want to, who sputters into the finish line at the end of her life. I would rather be her – this woman I envision – than lie in a bed at the end of my life, a bed that I’ve made it for myself that’s itchy, and uncomfortable, and not to my liking. What about you?

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