Do You Love It Enough To Be Bad At It?

best of failure stuff my coach taught me Jan 12, 2021
a demonstration of a classic failure

Like most human beings, the mere thought of failing, especially publicly, at something I care about makes my muscles tense up and my TMJ spring into action.  Bracing for physical or emotional threat is a survival instinct, after all.  And yet, I am convinced that if we want fulfillment, success, and joy, we are going to have to learn to thwart the instinct to avoid failure at all costs. 


But first, let's agree on what we mean by the word "failure."  For the purpose of this piece, I'm talking about putting effort into something that you care about that you expect to be relatively good at, and then not being good at it, in front of other people. 

(Just typing that made my jaw start clicking and popping.)

Intellectually, I know that failure is inevitable, failure is how we learn, and the artists and leaders I most admire failed dozens of times before they succeeded. I know I'm supposed to "fail forward." 

"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."

"To err is human." 

"Failure is success in progress."  

"We learn more from failure than from success." 

"I have not failed.  I've just found 1,000 ways that won't work."  (Clever, Thomas Edison, but not helpful.)

I know all of this.  But none of it helps my jaw not clench up at the thought of a bad evaluation, harsh criticism, or losing a bunch of money on an ill-fated entrepreneurial venture.  The simple truth is that knowing something in your head is not the same thing as knowing it in your body.

Most of us can trace a fear of failure back to some childhood socializing. See if any of these sound familiar:

"What if I get the answer wrong and they all laugh at me?" (Fifth grade me)

"What if playing the piano isn't something that cool kids do?" (Seventh grade me)

"What if I make the wrong choice and ruin my life forever?"  (Hyperbole much, twenty year old me?) 

For most of us, any new opportunity or a new sense of calling, summons a case of the "what ifs” that either stops us dead in our tracks (i.e. keep your hand down and don't make eye contact with the teacher; quit your piano lessons) or redirects us to some safer, less interesting version of the thing we originally had in mind (i.e. I would love to study theatre, but I better major in education as well so I have something to "fall back on" <--assuming failure before it even happens, vaguely disguised as "being realistic"). Or I might proceed, but I would still focus on the possibility of failure, narrowing my scope of vision so that all I could see were the pitfalls and potholes, missing all of the shortcuts, the bridges, and, of course, the beauty.

For a while in my 30's I assumed that all of this was a confidence issue, and thought maybe I could “fake it til I make it." It didn't work, of course, because as noted in the opening paragraph, fear of failure is a survival instinct; it is not a lack of self-esteem. 

And then about three months ago, as I was “what-if-ing” us both into a stupor over a new opportunity that had emerged, my coach asked me a question that completely shifted my narrative--"do you love it enough to be bad at it?" 

Did you get that?  Let me repeat it--do you love it enough to be bad at it? 

It was one of those needle-scratches-across-the-record moments; the noise in my head got really quite for a minute.  The answer to her question was so clear me—yep, the activity in question is so life giving that I will never stop doing it, regardless how good or bad I am at it.  My jaw unclenched, so much so that my mouth hung open. 

Her thoughtful question shifted me out of the embodied experience of fear into the embodied experience of delight. My neurons started firing along established pathways of wonder and curiosity. I relaxed. I got excited. I got my highlighters and Post It notes out.  

But wait, it get's better. 

Then, in all of her brilliance, my coach told me a story about a time she bombed so badly on stage, that someone she really admired mistook her for an absolute beginner. Can you imagine that feeling?  You are working your butt off, thinking that you're at least keeping up with the people who have been doing this twice as long as you have, and then the teacher says "I'm sorry, this is the advanced class, the beginner class meets on Wednesdays."  The word mortification comes to mind.  (Mortification derives from a Latin word that literally means “death of one part of the body while the rest is still alive”, and if I had been her in that moment, that is exactly how I would have felt.)

Let me see if I can beat this dead horse just a bit more. 

Which of these questions would get you to get back on the stage? 
A. Did you know that your favorite actor bombed once too?
B. What can you learn from this failure?
C. Who cares!?  You shouldn’t care.  Try not to care.  
D. Do you love it enough to be bad at it?

Answer: D! 

Here's why:  

A. Inner Critic fodder—“My favorite actor is so much more skilled than I am. That time they bombed was an anomaly. My bomb is bigger, and is a sign from the universe that I should quit now before I ruin my life."  
B. I am not ready to learn from this failure. I feel like one part of my body is dying while the rest of it is looking on in abject horror. My cognitive abilities are a bit limited at the moment. 
C. I do!!!  I care!!!!  So I must not be cut out for this. Obviously I don’t have the ability to not care, and so obviously I do not have what it takes.
D. YES! I do love this thing. It makes me feel alive, it makes time stand still, it makes me forget about everything else. Or, you know what, no, I don’t love it as much as I thought I did. If this is part of loving it, I think I’d rather opt out and redirect my energies elsewhere.

Before I wrap all this up, let me make one of my usual pleas--as in everything, approach this learning with a huge amount of self-compassion.  Failure hurts, and the most useful response to your own hurting is to be very, very kind to yourself.  

When you are ready to put this learning to work for you, ask yourself this--what do you love so much that you are willing to be bad at it, to bomb, to fail, to feel like part of your body is dying while the rest of it looks on? What do you love so much that you will gladly get back on stage and try again, because the trying is as much of a gift as the accomplishing?

My advice to you is to find more time for that activity, and to savor every second. Let the joy be in the doing.  


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