My friends and I have been talking a lot about failure this week, which is appropriate since I’ve recently had a string of failures. I’ll admit these failures are minor, mostly being denied a few fellowships, but for someone who isn’t used to failing, I took them personally. I know I know failure is a part of life, it makes us stronger, Abe Lincoln failed a whole bunch before he was president. I KNOW all that, but when I fail I don’t feel it. I feel it for a long time. In fact, I distinctly remember my first big failure – Jr High cheerleading tryouts. My mom reminded me of that weekend just yesterday, like I needed reminding. I’m not sure I’ve cried that hard since then. When I say I cried, I wailed. Like a 12-yr-old version of Day 26 Maggie. My mom tried to bribe me by taking me to Maurices, offered to buy me anything I wanted. I couldn’t stop crying long enough to pick out anything. I cried myself to sleep that night and woke up the next morning with red and puffy eyes.
I was too young for makeup so I rocked those pitiful swollen eyes to the Governor’s Mansion. I had won an essay contest earlier in the year, writing about the Chisolm Trail. It didn’t matter. I barely remember the tea with the DAR or reading my essay or compliments on how smart I was. But I remember that failure, and its feeling, as if it happened yesterday.
It was the same feeling I had when I failed officer candidate’s school the first time around. A failure I’m pretty sure I’ve been trying to make up for over the last ten years.* I feel not only when I get a rejection email, but when I fail to win first prize or score anything less than 98% on an assignment (I’m not a perfectionist after all).
This most recently failure was not getting selected for an editorial intern position – a volunteer position that included duties I performed as a college student. It didn’t matter that it was probably best, I have enough on my plate. It didn’t matter that I was probably overqualified. It only matter that I wasn’t selected for something. That rejection, however slight or unintentional, burned.
Which led me to wonder. Do other people feel as bad about failure as I do? As serendipity would have it, this week’s TED radio hour talked about failure – specifically how girls and boys look at failure. Reshma Saujani, founder of Girls who Code, talks about her experience with girls trying to write code. In one example a girl, after hours, tells her mentor that she couldn’t come up with anything as she sat in front of a blank screen. When the mentor hit the “undo” button, however, she found the girl had written quite a bit of code but deleted it all. She had chosen not to participate because she wasn’t perfect. Reshma goes on to argue that we raise our boys to be brave, make mistakes, and just try hard. While we raise our girls to be perfect.
I know the feeling. I laughed when my nephew told me years ago about how, despite having a pretty impressive football game and being awarded the game ball, my dad only mentioned how he missed “that one tackle in the second quarter.” I laughed because I knew that feeling all too well. My parents had pretty high standards and were always careful not to inflate our egos too much. They didn’t praise us too much.
But despite those high standards, or maybe because of them, they didn’t inoculate us against failure either. They let us fail – my brothers, my sisters, and me. They let us risk getting hurt – physically or emotionally. I’m sure it hurt my mom to see me cry that night – as it’s hurt her when I failed in much bigger ways later on. But that didn’t stop her from letting me try again the next year.
I was never taught that failure was permanent. I was taught that failure wasn’t reflective of identity, but rather skill set, and skill sets can be improved. Researcher Carol Dweck (yes in another TedTalk) explains this difference between a growth mindset and a fixed mindset. A person with a fixed mindset thinks failure is permanent. Failure means a person is a failure – now and forever. A person with a growth mindset thinks failure is indicative of where they’re at – at that moment. They think “I’ve failed, for now.”
Here’s the really bright lining with failure – it breeds resilience if we do it right. Failure can break a kid, crush her self-esteem. Or it can teach them how to sit with failure, learn from it, and beat it the next time around. That’s where my parents really made a difference. They let us fail with love. I may not of liked failing, but I knew – know – when and if I do my parents will be there to love, support, and comfort me. They won’t coddle me. They won’t tell me the referee was bogus. They won’t call and yell at the teacher who gave me a bad grade. They won’t talk trash on the guy or girl who beat me out for the position. They, along with so many of my loved ones, will provide an emotional safety net for me to rebuild my self-esteem, to bounce back, to move through whatever failure bruises my ego next.
I wish I had a magic trick for failure – to avoid it, to lessen its sting, or even to alchemize it into life’s greatest teacher. I don’t. I do know that I was lucky growing up learning to fail with love, to be taught that failure isn’t great, but it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not permanent. Still failure hurts. Luckily running, especially running across the country, has taught me to try and learn from pain. If I can’t learn from it, I can at least sit with it, walk with it, or even run with it.
*I failed because I was a poor runner, like I said failure sticks with me.