A Good Time to Fail
As the first born in my particular family system, early in my life I made a narrative link between performance and acceptance. Perform well and receive acceptance. Fail and experience disapproval (whether from within or without). As a quick learner, I grew into a mindset where the goal of acceptance gave rise to a compulsion to perform and a fear of failure. This shaped the activities to which I was drawn and the subjects I preferred in school. Given a sheet of math problems and a set of clearly defined rules, I would solve equations over and over again. However, when I attempted to learn algebra in elementary school, I didn't have a place in my mind for the level of abstraction being introduced at the time. I had excelled in school up to this point and had reached a disorienting dilemma. Even my best attempts to wrap my mind around high school algebra in fifth grade resulted in broken pencils, crippling self doubt, and displaced anger. With patient help from the teacher, I made some progress in understanding the content, but my confidence had been sorely injured, and my willingness to risk not knowing and looking foolish in the process was blunted considerably. This resulted in narrowing the number of activities and subjects I was interested in to those things that were in my wheelhouse. Internally, the story I told myself was, "I'm just not a higher math person."
This dynamic continued in other ways throughout my education. In high school, I was afforded the opportunity to take a class with English teacher Robert Qualls. His influence in my life is hard to overestimate, as he took a kid who was terrified of the freedom to express something on a blank page for fear that it wouldn't be original or good enough and helped me take the practice of writing more seriously without taking myself too seriously in the process. The expectation of perfection in writing was an impossible goal, and he began to help me find ways to embrace self-compassion in writing while imperceptibly raising the bar related to what communicates and what obfuscates. I attempted to articulate themes, observations, and assessments of literature, and he would spend considerable time interacting with those words, offering comments, and always finding ways the writing could be improved. He highlighted the gap but helped me to see "failure" as the price one pays for learning and as the necessary ingredient to drawing closer to truth.
Less than a decade later, I found myself in a counselor's office in New Jersey bewildered by yet another brush with failure phobia after having just proven that I could be quite successful. Yet, despite my "success," I felt profound emptiness. In our time together, I remember him asking when the last time was that I'd allowed myself to fail. Like my attempt to learn algebra in elementary school, his question made no sense to me at the time. Why would anyone allow themselves to fail? Ironically, it was this beautiful secular humanist man who invited me to consider whether I took seriously a faith that trusted that allowing things to fall apart might actually help me begin to piece my life back together. His words are as clear to me today as they were then:
"Maybe this is a good time to fail..."
Surrendering to my limitations and embracing failure in that season of my life was incredibly painful, but it also marked the beginning of a willingness to explore my life from a mindset of growth.
I continue to fail in many ways, some more significant than others, but I am learning that a willingness to look soberly at one's life, to take ownership for one's behavior, and to move vulnerably toward the places that scare me are the only ways I'm going to grow in the direction of wholeheartedness. Living with a growth mindset requires a relationship with humility, and humility often comes through a series of large and small humiliations. I have ample opportunity to experience these humiliations in my work, in my relationships, and in my parenting. The difference I'm experiencing now compared to earlier iterations of my evolving self is that I now trust that these smaller occasions of the ego's death and rebirth are integral for growing my inner space and for meeting others—especially my children—with more humanity so that they might learn much earlier than I did that failure is not the enemy.
If we can learn to befriend it, it is the beginning of learning.