Words have tremendous power over us, don't they? I can think of one F-word that, if I say it, makes my mother cringe and makes my father tell me not to swear in front of my mother. I think we all know which word I'm talking about...
But it's another F-word that has been occupying my thoughts lately. A word whose connotations come rushing in with such gravity that it knocks me right off my feet, my center shaken, my very core. That word is... failure.
I've spent a long time putting off stuff that I want to do because I'm scared of failure. Not just grand, sweeping failures like losing everything, maybe, but silly little things, too. Looking stupid, saying the wrong thing, it turning out that I'm not very good at something -- I've lived my life thus far preferring not to know whether or not I'd fail at something, rather than diving in to find out.
So, why are we so afraid of failure? What about the very concept of not turning out to be the winner terrifies us and stops us from even trying?
Well, society praises its winners. And that in itself is not a bad thing. "Hey you, well done! You won, we're all really impressed!" What an amazing thing!
But, the act of winning is often thrust up to mean the ultimate, the only worthy outcome, the only part of the process we're interested in -- and that in turn defines the winner. You are a winner, you are the best at something, and you have done everything right... until you're not a winner anymore. Somebody else wins instead, so they're a winner and you're -- well, we're not quite sure what to do with you now.
Why do we do that? Because failure is a darkness that we don't want to look at. But let me share a little secret with you; you already know it, but we're not talking about it.
Failure is inevitable.
We all will fail at something during the course of our lives.
And guess what? You're gonna survive it.
The problem with the winner complex is that it's not psychologically holistic. It doesn't include the lows, the down moments, the self-doubt and the insecurities. Because however nasty these moments are, they're real. They're a part of you and a part of me. They are life, and life just is exactly what it is in every single moment. It's not only the nice moments, the moments of success; but it's not just the crappy, terrifying, lonely moments, either. Breathe it in -- it's everything and it's gloriously inescapable. So start enjoying it, baby!
Fear of failure leaves you static, inert. You overthink everything, spiral off into a totally alternate universe where you fail at everything you try your hand at, and what a scary universe that appears to be when you live in another that only wants to know you by your successes, defines you by your wins. Without wins, you are definitionless -- scary!
But maybe not that scary. Imagine having the freedom to act, without being inextricably attached to the outcome. Imagine having a great idea one day, maybe over a few glasses of wine with a friend, and it's something that you absolutely have to do! It's bucket-list material... and then just doing it. Because isn't just doing it what matters? Isn't collecting those stories the stuff that makes a life? Not accolades, not decoration, not adoration (which, hell, is nice but it's not the very materiality of existence, am I right?).
And if you fail? So what! I've failed at plenty of things before. Let me share a failure with you. I went to a school that had a local reputation for being very good at teaching music. So as students we were all very much encouraged to play musical instruments as part of our education. During my time there I learned (to very, very varying degrees!) how to play the violin, the flute and the ocarina (seriously!). One day, it was announced that there would be a prize given to the most promising musician of the year. If we wanted to take part, we had to just go to the auditions at lunch time.
"Yeah, great!" I thought, "That would be a brilliant experience..."
So off I went, flute and sheet music in hand, ready to give 'em hell (as much as an amateur flautist might hope to give anyone hell!). I get up on the stage, flute pressed gently against my lips, legs quivering amidst the gaze of my (far more) accomplished musical peers and the school's head music teacher. I purse my lips, press my fingers on the keys, manage the first three notes and freeze.
Deadly silence, everyone watching me intently, quizzically...
I try again, the same three notes then... nothing. Absolutely nothing! I couldn't do it. I was looking at my sheet music, knowing that I wasn't confident enough in my own ability to complete the piece.
"Oh god, what am I doing here. I can't get through this..." I thought, my stomach heavy, my cheeks crimson.
I had to do something, I couldn't just stand there!
So I picked up the sheet music from the stand, turned to the teacher and said,
"I'm sorry, I really can't do this. I'm not ready."
And I left the stage, drenched in mortification. Sure that I would never survive this. How embarrassing, to stand among so many accomplished young musicicans and totally fluff it!
But look! Here I am! I survived! I tried, failed but I survived, dammit! I may not be a superstar flautist but I tried something, it didn't work out, and I still made it! The ground didn't swallow me whole (however much I may have wanted it to!), and I have a pretty funny (if a little cringeworthy) story that I can tell. I can share with you my failure, and bam, the stigma is gone.
No shame, just life...
The International Day for Failure, based in Finland, is currently battling against the stigma attached to failure by campaigning to institute an international holiday (October 13) where we share our failures by the year 2020. Just get them out in the open. Talk about them, remove the shame from them, and most importantly learn from them. Just imagine a day like that; we're encouraged to share our stories, laugh and cringe together and learn to take more risks by not being afraid to fail, but excited to try.
No shame, just life...
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