Why do we entertain this notion, often presented in movies, that someone who is good at something was exceptional at it from the beginning? We know it is not true! But we still watch the drivel, like the new Star Wars movie, where a girl picks up the lightsaber for the first time and is immediately amazing at it, beating seasoned warriors. Who is this delusional fantasy serving? Not us, that’s for sure. Maybe thinking that talent is inborn lets us off the hook and allows us to stay in our comfort zone… But that’s a recipe for the gradual death of spirit!
I have recently found out that my temperament, in order to reach its highest potential has to experience many failures. Not to fail sometimes, which is good for everyone, but to have a failure for breakfast every day. The only teeny tiny problem with that is I am absolutely terrified of failure.
I have no phobias. Or rather, I am scared of plenty of things, but the fear is what makes it exciting for me.
Heights? Definitely scary and thrilling, but that’s the idea!
Bugs? Yep, I scream, but I also pick them up, and even eat them. That’s the idea!
Needles? That’s a big one. But when I have to do it, I grit my teeth and do it. I can pierce my own skin or have a doctor do it. I still faint reliably during blood tests even when I’m lying down, especially if the nurse is unskilled and can’t find my vein (once a nurse hit the nerve in my arm instead, which created a massive swelling and a lot of bleeding. I fainted of course. And threw up all over her floor).
Even death. One day, I will not be here. Used to terrify me. Now? I realised that I wasn’t here for billions of years, I think I can handle not being here again.
But failure… Failure is somehow a level above everything. To fail publicly, to give it your all and fail, or worse, to come second place. To demonstrate that you are not, after all, as smart, as strong, as excellent, as you and everybody thought. That brings the worst possible potential outcome – rejection.
I am grateful to my parents for so many things. But it is unfair to expect our parents to be perfect, and some things we must learn by ourselves, when we grow up and after we leave the nest. I was not raised in a family that tolerated second place or encouraged failing forward. Only full victory and excellence were celebrated. Even if I brought home an A+ from school, mom would immediately ask ‘did anybody else get that mark?’. If anyone did, my mark did not count. Don’t even mention a B, that was worth a punishment or at the very least a telling off. If I got a good grade at a subject I liked, that didn’t count either.
I still remember an ice-skating race I entered at age 9. I stumbled and fell over right at the start of the race. I got back up and skated so fast that I still took second place. I felt really proud. But that race was never mentioned. I had to be the BEST. At everything. All the time. Otherwise, I did not matter. At least that is what my childish mind thought. I am absolutely certain that my parents did not intend this to be the story in my head. They were infinitely supportive of me. But this was simply the only way they knew how to support and motivate.
Needless to say, I quickly became terrified of failing, coming second best. And eventually, I did what any smart kid would do. I stopped trying. I slowly gave up on most subjects, started getting lower and lower grades, until I was just average. Because if I am mediocre, any small improvement is a celebration, but if I am smart, then nothing is good enough and it’s a constant battle to stay on top. It was an insane waste of potential.
In my 30s I read the book Mindset by Carol Dweck. And everything flipped in my head. I realised how my whole life I have been playing it safe. Only doing things I was either already good at or things I was better than most at. And I was comfortable. And scared.
But what I didn’t realise was this existence was killing my soul. I don’t believe in the soul, but avoiding failure was definitely killing something inside. It manifested in all sorts of things. Disordered eating, overspending, commitment phobia in relationships…
Only at 35 years old did I find out after a psychological assessment that high quantities of failure are not only important for me but absolutely vital. No wonder, despite being one of the strongest women in the world, I often felt like the weakest. Because, while improving in all the areas I felt comfortable in, I did not build strength where it counted most.
As soon as I began embracing failure in 2019, I realised that even though it is absolutely poop-your-pants terrifying, and involves the conquering of many inner demons, it can actually be even more exhilarating than all the other fears I like to overcome – heights, insects, death, needles, public speaking etc.
The keys seem to be:
a) To divorce failure from rejection.
As a kid, failure or coming second-best meant rejection. That rejection is inside my head. It is a conditioned response. But the most important truth I learned from reading Brene Brown, Mark Manson, Jordan Peterson, Aziz Gazipura, Byron Katie, Carol Dweck and others, is this: only I can reject myself. Nobody else. And so it is only I who can accept myself, nobody else.
So, as long as I stay with myself through every small and epic fail, cheer myself on through every roadblock, comfort myself when I feel like the world’s biggest doofus, dust myself off every time I fall off the horse, and never ever give up on the journey, failure is just another big adventure.
b) To keep on keeping on aka to act
Make it a practice and a habit. There is a great book called The Practicing Mind. This is a theory I have based on some things I have achieved so far. Habitual 20 minutes of daily exercise made me one of the strongest women in Australasia. Habitual daily reading in English made me good at English as my third language, same thing about Hebrew. Coaching thousands of hours of movement made me a good coach of movement. So will practising going after things and persevering if success does not happen right away will eventually make it a habit. And, as I found out recently, what gives my life meaning is the sense of adventure. Victory and defeat are but necessary companions on the way.
I am still scared. But now it’s a thrill, like being a kid again and walking that high water pipe on a bet, knees shaking and all.