Failure is real. Some people like to deny it or pretend it doesn’t exist (those people are stupid, which proves stupidity also exists… written with love). Fortunately, failure isn’t the evil thing many people want to believe it is (yea). The truth is failure is a gift. You might be thinking “That’s pretty obvious…” unless you’re like me who used to suffer from a fear of failure (that’s fun). That means I was afraid of something that is inevitable (genius). It’s like my nephew’s fear of pooping – it’s going to happen whether you want it or not, so sit back and try to enjoy it. If you didn’t know, that’s a true fact; it’s not uncommon for boys between three and eight to develop a fear of number two and to try to hold it in for a week or two, but that is a fight you are guaranteed to lose… hopefully or you’ll die. Coincidentally, never failing means you never do anything, which is itself failing, so it’s happening no matter what… hopefully, or your life will be terrible.
Some people are afraid of failure because there’s a fear of letting others down. It can be a parent or love interest, but regardless of who it is or how many people it may be, the fear is driven by this idea that we can lose love. If you really think about it, however, can you actually lose someone’s love? If love is being patient, kind, and self controlled (based on the verse we often read at weddings) is real love something that can be lost? If the fear of failure is because someone will beat you, that’s different. That’s not a fear of failure as much as it is a fear of being beaten. If the person we love is a meanie pants we should limit our interactions or at least our vulnerability to prevent them from hurting us as much. Even in this, real love isn’t lost; it’s given boundaries. Even in a normal break up, love isn’t lost as much as we realize we’re not a good fit for a deeper relationship (aka we can’t stand being around each other that much), but love on some level is still there unless we really let resentment settle in before we end things. If love is not something we can lose, maybe that shouldn’t be a reason to have a fear of failure.
When I was younger, part of my fear of failure was the idea that I needed to be good enough for people to like me; if I wasn’t the best, people wouldn’t like me, and if people didn’t like me, how could I like myself? There’s a solid lie (and a pretty dumb one at that). Gauging whether I liked myself based on what others thought meant I was looking to people who didn’t really know me and who had their own issues to be the experts of my life, but how could they be? And why would they care? They would be busy worrying about themselves. Of course, I didn’t care what my family who loved me thought because then I would’ve had to love me, too. It was like on some level I didn’t want to love myself – weird.
Gauging whether I liked myself based off others was also dumb because it meant in my head that I had to impress them in order to earn their love. If you always win or stand out for excellence, a few people will admire you, but a lot of people are going to hate you because of jealousy or because you look smug. Notice how people “liking” you wasn’t one of those two options? Anytime I spent trying to get others to like me by standing out would’ve been better served being someone who encouraged and praised others for their accomplishments. Having accomplishments are great, especially for self-esteem, but we grow friendships by being good to others, being relatable, and having a history together. You don’t win people’s hearts by being the best; you win them by being respectable and kind… unless they suck. Sometimes people just suck, and kindness makes them uncomfortable, so no matter how good you are, you’re never developing a friendship with them, but then why would you want to? If someone rejects us when we’re kind, they are on a very bad path and not someone to whom we should want to be close.
After some reflection on this topic I had a new thought: The main reason I developed a fear of failure wasn’t about others; it was about me. It’s based on a simple fact: I love to win. Failure is the opposite of winning. Failure leaves you feeling down whereas winning… winning is the best. Winning inspires great movies and is what sports fans crave because there’s a rush of excitement when you win. Looking back at my life, my fear of failure was mostly my fear of missing out on feeling the rush of winning (I’m clearly not that good a person). Sure winning is validating and says, “You don’t have to doubt yourself anymore because you are good enough,” but more importantly, winning is about that moment of “Bingo!” It’s the rush gamblers seek. And what increases the thrill of winning? The risk of failure. Winning is only great when not everyone wins and there’s a risk of losing. An NHL team playing against a novice house league hockey team won’t mean anything because there’s no risk of losing. The Stanley Cup playoffs, however, the risks of losing are incredibly high, which makes winning all the sweeter: The higher the risks, the more satisfying the win. About ten years ago I started adopting the idea that losing is my gift to the other team since I’m giving them the opportunity to feel good – I’m so nice. This idea helps losing not be as bad, but I’d still rather win… obviously. I’m not that kind.
What makes me angry is our culture for years has been trying to eliminate failure, but take away failure, and we lose excitement and motivation. One of the worst places we’ve taken away failing is school. For some reason educators developed a fear of failing kids as they push children through the grades even though they aren’t ready for the next level. It’s like they think failing will kill them. Sure, it will hurt at first, but that hurt will go away. What matters is they’ll now have a chance of improving reading and writing skills, so they can rebuild self esteem in the long run. To me, if I push along a child who doesn’t get the work in grade one, how can I expect them to understand what’s being taught in grade two? Being pushed along when kids are not at the right reading and writing levels will mean they will constantly feel stupid; they’ll feel so far behind they’ll give up because how will they ever catch up? Instead of a big hurt that can go away, this is a daily hurt that will leave them feeling defeated. If a kid can’t swim in a pool, you don’t push them to swim in a lake with waves because everyone else their age is doing it – they’ll drown. Even worse, leadership not letting teachers fail students removes any threat they might have for students who don’t want to do their work. These kids get to be stupid by choice, and caring adults have nothing to scare them into doing their work, which means you have to let them be stupid as you push them along.
When I was 20 and volunteering in a grade six class, there was a boy I tried to get working. When he asked why he should bother, I told him because he could fail. He started laughing – nope. He said he hadn’t passed a grade for four years. They just pushed him along, and this continued in high school. He just fooled around because he could. Several years after high school I was talking to him and he said his greatest regret was not doing the work and setting himself up for a better future. Instead, he was now trying to catch up on life. To me, the education system failed him because they didn’t fail him. Just like grownups occasionally needing a kick in the pants to do our work, so do kids. Failing (and losing) are part of life, and learning how to overcome them and persevere are what make us people of good character.
In another situation, my ex-girlfriend was a very gifted athlete and student. She won athletic awards in grade nine and ten while also getting good grades without doing any real work. She never had a fear of failure, which meant she never worked very hard or practiced… and that caught up to her hard. By the end of high school, because she had coasted, she ended up being one of the worst on the teams she kept playing. Her marks also suffered, and in post secondary, despite being very smart, she failed out of several programs. Meanwhile, my friend, Paul in high school graduated with a 96% average without breaking a sweat, but then his first semester at university in engineering nearly broke him. He needed to maintain an 80% average to keep his $25k scholarship (he was that kind of smart). He finished the year with an 80.25% working his butt off. Unlike my ex, he quickly adapted to working hard because of his fear of failure whereas she gave up, which leads to an important truth: A healthy fear of failure is supposed to motivate us to work harder to be successful.
Another important truth is people will aim for where you set the bar. Set it low and you can expect that’s where most are aiming… and now we know what happened to millenials and gen Zs. Bubble wrap should only be used for moving breakables (and popping for fun), and not for children. You can’t grow a thick skin without a few bruises. Here’s a fun question: Is a parent’s job to make the kids like them or make to make the kids grow up to be a good citizen? Here’s another: Is the education system meant to let everyone cross the stage at graduation or to prepare the students for the real world?
The best lesson I learned about failure was from a Disney cartoon, Meet the Robinsons, (a movie that has one of the greatest villains of all time). In this movie there’s a scene where the main character fails at fixing a peanut butter jelly gun, which causes it to splatter everyone around him. Just as he gets upset because he failed, everyone else starts cheering, “You did it!” The moral is failing is one step closer to achieving your goal. It’s not something to be afraid of or to feel bad about. We just need to keep moving forward.
This week may you discover that failure is a gift that we don’t need to be afraid of, but something we should embrace.
Rev. Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, learning to love dumb people (like me)