What have you failed at today?

I was listening to this interview that Jonathan Fields had with Sarah Lewis and she mentioned something there about Sarah Blakley, the founder of the multi-million dollar company Spanx, whose story incidentally is an inspirational read for every one of us who dares to dream of doing something daring. So anyway, in the interview, Sarah Lewis (they both share the same name, just realised) apparently talks about how her father would ask her and her brother at the dinner table, “so what did you fail at today?”.

Pause. Mull. Take the question in an imaginary glass, sniff it, sip it, roll it over your tongue and then swallow it. Does it create a warm fuzzy feeling as it slides down your throat or do you start spluttering because it just wouldn’t go down well with you?

What have I failed at today? Little do we realise that it’s our failures really, all the small ones, the big ones, the stupid ones, the funny ones, the egg-on-your-face ones, any kind of mistakes, failures and slip-ups are what teaches us to be smarter about it the next time. If little gorgeous miraculous babies were to give up at the first instance of a fall when they’re first starting to get over the crawl and learn to walk, well we’d all still be crawling on our fours wouldn’t we? Doesn’t it strike you as strange that as we grow up, more aware, more insightful, the things that we dared to earlier, only get more and more fearful as time passes by. We fear:

a) ridicule – the egg-on-my-face, what-will-people-say moments when we fail (notice I say when, because failure is a certainty that we honestly don’t want to embrace)

b) comparison – she did-it-so-well and she’s so goddammed successful why can’t it happen to me or with me or to me? Yeah. Stop. Did you ever ask “her” or “him” about his journey to the success that you have ascribed them to? Why don’t you ask and be prepared to hear about their travails?

c) judgement – now this one is a classic irony – we yearn to be successful because success to most of us is about the external approbation and the applause and the camera flashes popping in our faces and the people gushing about how “successful” we are. Yet, yet we fear these very people’s judgement about us if we’re not. What is success if not a judgement by the very people we fear of failing in front of? (Now that’s a tweetable).

d) censure – people who have our backs will always encourage us to go out and really s-t-r-e-t-c-h our limits and bask in the flowering of our potential as we do so. The muscle of potential really does get all warmed up as we s-t-r-e-t-c-h and practice everyday. Slowly, little by little by little we get better. Watch The Karate Kid, one of my favourite movies, to understand how practice helps. But we don’t want to put our time and effort into it. We want mastery in a day, sorry, in an instant, NOW. And when we fail, we are afraid of censure. Are we strange or what?

e) being left behind – we’re not rats, yet we call it a ‘rat race’. We’re not rats, yet we have books alluding to rat food, “who moved my cheese”?. In fact if you see ant behaviour (and there are myrmecologists who’ve devoted their lives to the study of these wonderful tiny creatures with big hearts and will), you’ll be blown away by their intrinsic discipline that is so individualistic and yet works so amazingly in groups (read this fascinating article on Swarm Theory here) as well. So why are we equating ‘living’ to a race? I just want to live freely, happily, connectedly, joyously and doing my own ‘thang’. Why should I be afraid of you? Beats me. Always has, but the heartbreaking truth is that we end up beating ourselves over it. We’re our own worst enemies.

f) not coming first – winning is everything. Or not. Depends on how you want to look at life. And how you define winning. Winning, success, failure, are not just adjectives in the language of life. They can make or mar us. Coming first in school I remember was the ‘big’ thing for me. When I came 2nd when I was in the 4th grade and got rebuked by my folks, I honestly felt like I’d let them down. That was perhaps the beginning of ‘wanting to please other people’, and the fear of failure. It’s okay isn’t it if you don’t come first? But then the guy with the podium finish is the one who gets all the endorsements. Ha!

g) shame – what does shame mean to you? this is perhaps the most inexplicable yet one of the most powerful emotions that can elicit a visceral reaction, can have us bound like a mummy in our own fears and keep us from truly blossoming out into the fabulous human beings we are. Shame. I hate that 5 letter word. Because we internalise it, we make it about ‘me’, we make it about ‘not being enough’ we make it about ‘never being good enough’ and we eat it for breakfast, lunch, dinner. Jesus! We need to chew it and spit it out.

h) guilt – what is guilt? is the flipside of shame? Perhaps it is. It gnaws at your innards, brews toxic emotions and suffuses your being with this toxicity that is a drug that you are addicted to all your life. No amount of detox helps. Guilt has you firmly in its grip. But guilty of what? If I have to be convicted for:
being myself, being flawed, being quirky, being imperfect, being ‘too much’, being my true unique self, being non-conformist, being politically gauche or savvy, being a free ranger, being anything goddammit that is at its core being human, then yes, I am guilty. I want to listen to the beat of my own drummer, not yours. Is that alright or what?

When and if we are able to traverse this rocky road of the fear of failure, it is then and only then that we come to a self-assured, perhaps tranquil and “indifferent to a world-view that defines success” place. Yes, it is only then that we have truly arrived. It is time we rejigged our internal GPS to point us in a direction that is N-E-W-S (North, East, West, South). How does it matter? It’s your direction, your definition, your path, your life. Go fail.

And while you do so, please do share with me how you failed today, or tomorrow, and what you learnt from those failures? Did you feel misery, shame, guilt or were you able to take it all in your stride? Sharing is caring, I invite you to do so. Lots of love.

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