“I always thought you coped with failure or you didn’t cope with failure. I never thought anyone loved failure.”
~ Carol S. Dweck
It is a universal struggle. We all want to win, be admired, get it right on the first try. We attempt to say nice things to one another about our failures, but very few of us actually feel good about them. We put up a front, bury them, run like hell to avoid them. We even apologize for them, as if being imperfect is a sin, rather than the human condition.
One of the greatest driving forces in our lives, fueling our actions, decisions, and even belief systems, is the overwhelming desire to avoid failing. In some cases this desire causes us to avoid taking risks, other times it pushes us to work ourselves to exhaustion and depletion. At best, it makes us feel inadequate.
Why all of this fixation on failure?
We are instinctual beings with the need for love, acceptance, and security. Security in the world. Acceptance from others. Love for ourselves. We want to be good enough. We want to be worthy. The problem is how we define what “good enough” looks like.
In the great hide-out from failure, I have struggled for years to keep up a work-life balance. Work has consistently won. Family, friends, sleep, my health, and other personal passions have fallen by the wayside. I’ll have time for yoga next week. I’ll have time to see my friends next weekend. I’ll read, write, surf, and work out when I’m on vacation. How irresponsible and selfish it would be to indulge these “optional” needs when there is so much work to be done. Eight hours of sleep? I can survive on five. Just don’t let me fail.
My own scenario is work, but we flail about trying to avoid imperfection in all manner of contexts. Pick your poison. Jobs, relationships, parenting, school, sports, even personal interests that were once pursued purely out of love. We can become single-minded about almost anything, and our defense mechanisms are impressively dynamic.
Does this type of prioritizing really make us better in our work? In our relationships? In our families? Does it make us better people?
When it comes to the race for perfection, there are only two possible outcomes. One, we can continue to take on the expectations of everyone else, batter our bodies, minds, and hearts with impossible expectations, and eventually end up quitting, because that approach is not sustainable. We can’t keep up the quest for infallibility forever, and we can never win it. At some point, it will break us.
Outcome number two is that we can start to let some things go. Surrender some control. Start to take some new risks. We might be judged, and we might disappoint certain people. We might even lose a job or relationship at some point, to someone willing to take on the self-destructive practices that we weren’t. In other words, we might fail.
But is avoiding failure really a success? In my own life, even when I have experienced praise from my superiors, movement up the pay scale, and generally getting shit done, I haven’t always felt very happy about it. Sometimes I’ve felt accomplished for a moment, but much of the time I’ve felt overwhelmed, even resentful. Deep down, I’ve wanted more to my life than endless work, even when the work was something meaningful that I had once enjoyed. The quest to succeed can beat all of the joy out of our missions to make the world a better place. I gravely avoided disappointing anyone, yet I seemed to be okay with disappointing myself.
I did have a choice. I could continue striving to do what everyone else expected, even demanded of me, and run forever towards a horizon I would never reach. I would never be perfect, and I would never please everyone. I would win sometimes, but not every time.
The other choice: I could do what I wanted and needed to do, follow my own intuition, and very possibly fail in the eyes of the world. This is the frightening path, but it’s also the one that lends itself to hope. It’s not possible to be perfect for the world. It is possible to be a perfect version of yourself.
Becoming a happy failure doesn’t mean that we become lazy or complacent. It doesn’t mean that we kick back on our sub-par laurels. It means that we learn to pay attention to the pulsations of our energy, and be moved by the ebb and flow of what serves us. It means that we learn to see failure as a message from the universe. Not hate mail. More like a fortune cookie. We can accept that divine feedback with gratitude.
We have to shift the way we view failure. It is there, waiting for us, for a reason. It has something to teach us. It has something to alter in our lives. If we fail, it’s because something that we are doing is not serving us, and failure is the mechanism by which life forces us to change. Most of us don’t like to change. We need a swift kick in the ass from failure to be able to do it. Rather than struggling against it, hiding from it, dancing around it like broken glass, let failure come. Watch it. Listen to it. Maybe even love it. Consider why it has come. It’s not because we aren’t good enough. There are many reasons it may come, but that will never be one of them.
Failure is not the dark shadow hovering in our peripheral vision, threatening us, making us sweat. That shadow is actually the myth of success. Failure is the fresh wind on our faces, spinning the weathervane, and pointing us toward transformation.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Roger Williams via Flickr