The F Word: Not as Bad as It Seems

My daughter asked to interview me last night for a school project. After thinking it over for a few minutes, I said yes. Nah, who am I kidding? I didn’t hesitate. Not only would I do anything for my daughter, but let’s get real—I like the attention from my kiddo.

What I didn’t expect were the type of questions she asked me:

  • Have you ever had a failure that hurt?
  • Have you ever had a failure that taught you something?
  • When you have a failure, how do you learn to move on?
  • How has failing made you a better person?
  • What advice would you give to someone who is afraid of failing?

Damn. And I was expecting something easy. 😐

Earlier that day, I had been reading Josh Waitzkin’s book, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance  (affiliate)—which I highly recommend, by the way—and how he spent months learning Push Hands by failing at it over and over again, learning to take a hit, and being pummeled. It inspired me and helped me realize how important failure can be to progress. Josh calls it an investment in loss.

Having just read this passage, and the unexpected depth of my daughter’s questions, I decided to answer thoughtfully instead of just rushing through them. I’m glad I did.

Here are the high-level gists of my responses:

I have failed publicly, in moments that it counted, and still come out alive. It hurt like hell, I was embarrassed, I wished for things to be different, and I wished to hide. Being called out on it multiple times afterwards hurt even more.

The only times I’ve not learned from a failure is when I’ve let pride get in the way. I learn when I sit back and accept my humanity and shortcomings. It’s only then that I’m able to break my failure down into bite-sized chunks, analyze, and try again.

I’ve never had a failure result in any tragically permanent or lasting consequences. I tend to think to myself, “What’s the worst that could  happen?” And it’s never quite as bad as I imagine. Sure, it stings and you feel like a spread of fly-infested poop for a while, but my desire to learn and progress keeps me moving forward.

More than anything, failing has taught me to connect with other people and myself. I’ve learned how to sympathize with others because I’ve been there. I can relate to them and teach and ask questions. I’ve learned how to engage in positive self talk and maybe even convince my inner critic that I’m worth my time.

Understand that failing is okay, and is integral to progress. Yes, it can be scary. Yes, it can hurt at times. Yes, it can suck. But it can also be exciting. Each failure is a lesson about yourself and your process. Each failure is an opportunity to refine your approach and bring yourself one step closer to mastery.

In my mind, failure always looks like a big, bad, foul-breathed demon with razor-sharp teeth, ready to pounce and rip me to smithereens. It lurks in the shadows, in the unknown, so I sometimes try to avoid it. Yet when I finally meet it face to face, I realize it’s more like a big fuzzy kitten that knows how to slap you around a little bit, rough you up, and then help you see the proper way. Okay, that was a weird analogy. My point, again, is that failure is never as bad as it seems.

So, yeah, last night was a bit of a journey for me, learning about myself through the most unexpected of places—my daughter’s homework assignment.