Imagine that we graded tests based on how much you still had to learn, rather than how much you had failed to learn.
Instead of receiving an F or even a zero, you’d get a 100% - or 98% or 87% or 50% - based on how much you still had to learn at that level.
Instead of feeling like a failure, you’d feel challenged to strap on your boots and learn more, learn better, just learn.
The feeling of failure is so deeply wired in us as being “wrong” or “bad” that it keeps us from playing, experimenting, trying new things. We are wired to think in black and white, in safety in numbers, in not sticking out of the crowd by being the anomaly.
I’m no exception. I never learnt how to fail. When I received an ‘A’ my parents would ask with genuine concern if everything was alright with me, because they expected me to get an A-plus every time.
The problem here wasn't even that my parents pushed me hard — they didn’t, they just believed fully in my capabilities, which led me to become a confident young adult, who felt invincible, programmed for success, able to achieve anything she put her mind to.
The problem that developed unseen was I became scared to fail. And as I got older and the stakes got higher and I stepped confidently into situations that challenged me more than ever, I've lost a lot of time feeling shit about myself when I didn’t succeed, when things didn’t go to plan, when an experiment went wrong.
I lost a lot of time feeling like a failure, losing faith in my own abilities because if I didn’t succeed, there must have been something wrong with me. After all, I lacked no capability, no opportunity, and no advantage.
In the past months, I have been drowning in the feeling of failure.
I didn’t succeed in an attempt at making an unlikely relationship work, despite my belief in it.
I haven’t yet succeeded in expressing my artistic voice the way I want, despite my intense urge to be heard.
I haven’t yet even started figuring out where my income comes from while I undertake a new path in my career.
And most of all, in all the experimentation that I have taken on in my life, both professional and personal, I have stumbled across some significant flaws in my core belief system, which feels like the biggest setback of all. How can I do anything if I can’t even trust these basic things about life and the world?
In the past weeks, one of the voices that have been critical in keeping me above water has been an unlikely one. This sister from another mother was never my confidante even when she was my sister-in-law, but in the wake of the hardest blow to my own core beliefs about myself, she appeared in my life to tell me that she loves this imperfect me who has messy emotions and isn’t always trying to be the best at everything. And when I confided in her about my darkest most self-destructive urges, to do things that I knew were no good for me but I couldn’t always fight back with reason, she said the most important thing I have never heard:
“You don’t have to be perfect. You aren’t perfect. You’re allowed to be imperfect.
"You’re allowed to fuck up. I’ll still be here to pick up your pieces when you break yourself again. Just be you.”
And after the initial shock of the simple beauty of this thought, the incredible relief of the internal pressure finally easing off, I did just that. I fucked up. I did what I knew I shouldn’t, and two days in, I felt like an idiot and I stopped doing it because it just didn’t work.
I tried. Over and over and over again, I tried. I tried to bring my idealistic, optimistic version of reality to life, and I failed, again. For the tenth time. And I didn’t try so many times because I’m stupid or because I’m a failure. I tried because I believed in something, and I was prepared to make the effort for it.
And after a quiet day of solitude to digest, a long night’s sleep, and a fresh start on Sunday morning with a stroll down my street, I realised something critical:
I haven’t been failing. I’ve been learning.
I’ve been learning that my own idealism isn’t always enough, because some people just don’t share my world view. And that’s okay.
I’ve been learning what I’ve never learnt to do in relationships. I’ve been learning what freaks me out, and how I avoid dealing with my feelings by distracting myself. I’ve been learning what I do and don’t want from a relationship. I’ve been learning how to stay with my feelings rather than hiding from them or masking them. I’ve been learning how to turn those feelings into words and pictures and expressions of beauty. I’ve been learning how to not be ashamed of my feelings.
I’ve been learning how to feel good about myself even without my long list of successful achievements. And without the constant approval of those who matter most to me. I’m learning how to be the real me even when someone might judge me harshly, and to stand my ground without getting angry or defensive. I’m learning how to not fight with all my might at the first sign of threat. I’m learning how to feel things and use those feelings to guide me peacefully.
These are all things that I could be graded on with an “F” so far, but I prefer to give myself a 98% of learning to go.
And I’m doing all this while trying not to reply on all my past sources of safety and security: my best friend and sounding board, my achievements, my discipline to keep pushing through, my perfectionism, my drive to always win.
It’s like doing a calculus exam without my trusty calculator. I’m learning how to do the whole thing manually. No shortcuts.
I’m learning how to make it without faking it. Because yes, you can fake it till you make it, but eventually, you will feel fake, unfinished, unfulfilled, and incomplete. You will feel cheated, like you’ve missed the point of life, of living, like there’s more that you just can’t see.
It’s hard to learn to feel every feeling instead of running from it into distractions that make you feel good again.
I’ve even begun to question if meditation and exercise aren’t just escapes away from our own truth, almost as bad as mindless TV and alcohol, numbing us by flooding our minds and bodies with feel-good chemicals.
We aren’t taught to feel the bad feelings. To simply say, “I feel sad or lonely or angry today, and that’s okay.” We’re taught that we are failing if we aren’t happy. We’re taught that success means winning each and every single time. We’re taught to admire those who are at the top of the class, not those who are working hard to learn the lessons on the way.
But the depth of human experience is where true wisdom lies. To feel familiar and comfortable with everything we want to run from is true strength. To stand our ground even when our mind tells us to run from imminent danger is true mastery.
Because the master doesn’t run from her enemies. She stays, peaceful, still, and confident — that whatever comes her way, she will face with all her inner powers at her disposal — her mind sharpened, her heart opened, her body sculpted, and her soul peaceful.
To be a master, she must learn each lesson, try every method, open every door, face every challenge over and over until she is victorious and wise. No one becomes a master without the scars to show for the lessons learnt.
To become a master, I’ve got to learn to fail. And to turn each failing into a learning, to go deeper, higher, and even further in challenging myself beyond the beliefs I take for granted about myself, about life, about the world.
To become the master, I must learn to fail — harder, better, faster, to become stronger.
To become the master, I must first become the servant — to all the learnings that I haven’t even encountered yet.
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