As the new school year picks up, I’m reminded of a consistency that followed me throughout my years as a student.
From kindergarten to senior year of college, I was doing everything I could to avoid failure. I, like many, had a self-deprecating fear of failing. It was with me in every class photo, crawling up the back of my neck.
I recall sitting at the kitchen table with my parents after their first conference with my kindergarten teacher. They told me my teacher had one critique: I was a great student, but too hard on myself.
In high school, my mom stopped going to parent-teacher conferences all together because, year after year, my educators told her the same thing: I’m my own worst enemy.
I heard it my whole life, but still I persisted. I kept demanding perfection, whether it was in school, sports or self.
As I progressed through school, my expectations only grew more unrealistic, as did the pressure I was putting on myself. I blamed my teachers, coaches and parents who I told myself were the ones expecting perfection. But it was all me.
I was successful on paper, but struggling internally. I avoided challenges that seemed impossible to succeed at right away.
My need for perfection wasn’t the healthy drive I was writing it off as. It wasn’t motivation to succeed but denying myself even the slightest imperfection.
During my senior year at university, I wrote one of my final journalism projects on a local teacher. He was an esteemed professor, successful entrepreneur, and dedicated father and husband. It just so happens he never graduated high school.
He was so fixated on straight As and avoiding failure that, when he got his first F during junior year, he couldn’t handle the disappointment and dropped out. He spent time sulking, eventually obtained his GED and was accepted into a university based on his SAT scores from before he dropped out. For the first half of his time at university, he struggled to decide on a major because he couldn’t handle the idea of potentially failing again.
He said finding faith helped him see beyond his own ego, which allowed him to challenge himself again. He obtained a degree and went on to achieve a masters. Today he is successful in every definition of the word.
But it took accepting failure for him to get there.
His story helped me achieve similar peace of mind. As he answered my questions, I felt myself relieved of a weight I couldn’t let go of before. He helped me see that going my whole life without making a mistake was the only thing keeping me from true success.
I know this issue isn’t limited to me and my former subject. We are a society built on comparison. We see other people’s possessions, achievements and happiness and compare it to the lack of our own. We want to present the best versions of ourselves to everyone we meet.
It is good to strive to be the best versions of ourselves, to want to succeed, and to urge others to do so, but it becomes unhealthy when the idea of success keeps us from the possibility of failure.
Simply hearing the phrases “break-up,” “flunking a test” or “tripping in front of someone” leaves us feeling discomfort. Sure, those situations aren’t pleasant, sometimes painful. It is never easy to have our egos take a hit, but those negative emotions aren’t eternal. We need to embrace these situations for what they are: small hurdles that will eventually become the past.
We learn from living and failure is a part of life. As we make mistakes, we become better in a way we can’t without experiencing failure. I couldn’t fully appreciate my successes until my bubble popped and I learned to coexist with the stumbles, pain and eventual growth of failures.
I now see the bravery it takes to fail, to face a problem I can’t solve right away, to keep moving after I lose something or someone I love. I now find joy in overcoming an obstacle that once seemed too daunting to face. Now, as I learn to coexist with my failures, I’m able to go far beyond the limitations I once had for myself.
So yes, we can go our whole lives without failing, without embarrassing ourselves or facing a challenge too great to succeed at. But who’s to say those lives, in fabricated bubbles of perfection, are filled with true success?
So I’m going to do my best succeeding at failing. And if I can’t get it right the first time, then I’ll just try again.