Succeeding at Failure

January 22, 2014

Kayaking SuccessWhen I was a junior in high school, my drama teacher set my class two challenges, each designed to get us thinking creatively:

  1. Write down as many uses for a brick as you can think of.
  2. Draw three creatures that do not exist, and that are combinations of a bunch of different animals. Use as much detail as you can.

Thinking CreativelyThe first challenge was a cinch. I’ve been writing fiction ever since I could hold a pen, and still can switch on daydreams as real as a TV show whenever I get bored. If you ask me to use my imagination to think up impossible things, I’m on solid ground.

Sure, I listed the usual (boring) uses for a brick: house construction, paperweight, impromptu dumb-bell, etc. But then came the fun ones: a piece of a giant’s Lego set, an impenetrable fortress for ant-armies, Twinkie-holder, napkin ring at a brick-layers’ convention, etc.

All this is to say, if you’re looking for something to do with that pile of bricks you have lying around your house for some reason, I’m your girl.

But then came challenge number two. Sure I could think of imaginary animals—how about a zebra-striped cow, with the head of a horse, the legs of a mini-elephant, and the horns of a water buffalo? Oh, and it can talk like a parrot! Oh, and maybe it can jump like a kangaroo! Oh yeah, the ideas were coming fast.

There was just one problem. I can’t draw. Not at all. Even stick figures are a struggle for me. I stared at that blank piece of paper, listening to the excited pencil-scratching coming from my neighbors’ desks, and my cheeks began to burn. I was the only one not drawing.

Venturing OutI just sat there, with my head down, until the activity was over. I couldn’t even let myself try. I couldn’t even permit a doodle. I couldn’t take the risk that the beautiful image I had in my head might not translate onto paper. Better to be scolded by my teacher for failing to complete the activity, than for it to be known that I might be less than excellent at something. So I just sat there, almost in tears, until the papers were collected.

I’ve thought about that moment a lot since then. Why hadn’t I even tried? Why had I assumed the result would be that horrible, without taking the simple step of just beginning? Why had I decided by the end of elementary school that I Am Not An Artist? End of story, no question about it, no need to try.

So many times, both in camp and out of camp, I see young girls give up on things before they’ve even begun.

“No, I can’t take pottery, I’m not artsy.”

“No way am I going to try out for basketball, I’m not athletic at all.”

“I can’t take the swim test. I’ve never been much of a swimmer.”

Taking the LeapSomehow, it has become part of our mindset that our talents, our levels of intelligence and understanding, and our potential for achievement are set in stone from the very beginning. The thoughts that were racing through my mind that day in drama class consisted entirely of, I was bad at drawing in elementary school. Therefore, I am bad at drawing now. Therefore, I will always be bad at drawing, no matter how hard I try. Therefore, I should not try.

I know I’m not the only one that thinks this way. We have become so afraid of failure, because we think that that failure defines us even more than the successes that come afterwards. Sure, we know that da Vinci didn’t paint the Mona Lisa the first time he ever touched a paintbrush, and yet somehow we still think that if we fail the first time, then we will inevitably fail every time, with no shot at improvement.

But this is wrong. This is so wrong! Why should I, at 23 years old, have already decided which categories I belong in (Good Writer, Good Reader, Not-Good Drawer, Not-Good Dancer), and given up on changing any of them? Why should a 10 year old camper stand frozen at the edge of the dock on swim demo day, just because somebody told her one time that she wasn’t a very fast swimmer? Why should we throw away the chance to surprise ourselves with new, enjoyable experiences, in an attempt to save our pride from the sting of failure?

Dancing QueensSo here’s the challenge (you knew this was coming): allow yourself to be bad at something once a day. It can be a brand new experience, or an old one that you gave up on long ago. If you’re a bad dancer, then dance like a crazy person with your friends, and laugh when they tell you you’re not so good. If you gave up on piano after one lesson, sit down and bang out “Chopsticks” on the keys, and laugh when you hit a bad note. If you have always wanted to be a poet, then write down that poem that you have bouncing around in your head, and then laugh when you realize it sounds more like a Hallmark Card than Emily Dickinson.

That’s right: laugh. Train yourself to find the joy in failure. When that sinking feeling comes along that tells you to run away from the challenge before it becomes too much, then laugh it away, and try again. And again. And again. And again. Sure, maybe you’ll never be dancing at center stage in Radio City Music Hall, or tickling the ivories like Stevie Wonder, or becoming the next US Poet Laureate—but hey, maybe you will. You’ll never know unless you embrace the possibility that you might just fail, and then go for it anyway.

As for me, I’m still not a great drawer. But I hope that Mr. McFarland will accept this late addition to the creativity project. May I present, the Zebreleffow:

The Zebreleffow

Speak Your Mind

Tell us what you're thinking...
and oh, if you want a pic to show with your comment, go get a gravatar!

*