Failing Well

by Jen Whinnen

On the last night of winter break my son got out of bed to make a confession. He needed to tell me about something he’d done. It had been eating away at him all break, torturing him. He hoped it would go away, but he couldn’t take it any longer. He had to come clean.

He failed a test. His teacher had given them a pop geography quiz before the break and he only got 1 out of 7 correct. Other kids in the class knew all of the answers and were going on the next round of a geography bee, but he was not. He “didn’t even know where New York was!” In front of his entire class, he failed.

Watching him paced the floor like a caged animal while choking down tears broke my heart. What a small thing to be so tortured over! A pop quiz? Geez, I’ve probably failed thousands of those!

But, Jack never fails tests. Learning has always come easy to him. He was reading novels before he lost his first tooth and he understands abstract concepts and complicated math better than most adults (present company included). He’s a brainiac who goes to smarty pants school with other brainiacs and has no idea what it’s like to struggle to learn.

He was at a crossroads. If he’s not smart, what is he? How can he live in a world where he fails at the one thing he’s really good at?

Jack’s feelings of worthlessness and identity-lessness in the face of a small failure are not unusual. In a job market that is increasingly competitive, our children are being raised to believe that they have to be the best at all times or some terrible impoverished fate will befall them. Likewise, our social media driven world glorifies a glossy, photoshopped perfection. Success is, more than ever, measured by a very outward display of accumulation. We succeed when we are well groomed, eat well prepared meals and can do handstands in the sand. When stacked up against cyber perfection, it’s not uncommon for most of us to feel defeated by our flaws.

And while I don’t find social media good or bad, it’s also not the whole story. Social media is the equivalent of our living rooms. It’s the place to show the nicest, most “successful” sides of ourselves; our family photos and vacation slide shows, cyber nic nacs and tastes. But, it’s not the whole house. We don’t show our closets or cupboards on social media (nor should we) and our ability to be resilient, pliant, flexible or agile in mind and measure don’t photograph well. Nevertheless, each of our lives are filled with clogged drains, closets we are trying to sort through and unfinished projects. Our life houses are stacked, top to bottom, day in and day out, with little and big failures.

That’s why for the New Year, I suggest we get good at failing. We need to get big and bold about our failures!

Using failure as a New Year’s resolution theme may seems tragically defeatist, but I don’t really think so. It’s important to learn how to fail well. Learning how to fail is key to unlocking a truly bountiful life. Learning to fail means that we trust that our self worth is not diminished when what we set out to do does not go as planned. It is understanding and believing that we are OK regardless of the outcome of our efforts. It’s the faith that we are allowed to try again. It’s the way in which we make it past week two in our resolutions and how we get busy doing the work of doing. In order to be successful, we need to get comfortable with being “bad” at things.

In yoga we talk about the idea of accepting where you are. I’ve often misinterpreted this as “where I am is OK, because sticking with this will make me better.” This is not the same thing as allowing myself the option of falling flat on my face, of looking stupid and feeling silly. Detachment is not being attached to the fruits of our labor. That means not being attached to getting what I want to happen, as well as, not getting attached to the things I did not want to happen.

Getting good at being bad teaches us that the discomfort we feel isn’t the whole story. It is a chapter, a passage, in the novel of our lives. It brings us back to knowing our intrinsic beauty. When we allow ourselves to be in process, to be efforting, when we know we are not diminished when we do not accomplish goals, we afford ourselves grace. We give ourselves permission to try again. We continue to grow. And growth is our birthright.

No matter what happens, we are perfect, beautiful and allowed to be here. When we provide a consistent, reliable do over button for ourselves it creates a groove. It teaches us the language of forgiveness and love. It reaffirms that this moment isn’t any more important than any other. When I know I am “good” at something I identify with it and I can no longer be. If I can hang onto “I am” then I can “be” anything. I can try. I can fail. No matter what happens, I am. Messing up, failing tests, failing at relationships, crashing the car, breaking a bone, going bankrupt, saying unkind things, cheating on a lover, none of these things is the sum total of who we are. Because we are. I am. Flaws and all.