I love seeing my former students on social media. Kids from whom I might never have heard again are a regular feature in my daily scroll on Facebook and Instagram- weddings, babies, careers, I am thrilled to see their trials and travails.
I have a former student, though, who posts a lot of motivational pep-speak. You know what I’m talking about. It’s all the trite catchphrases that we’ve all seen on posters with mountains. I know I heard all of them many, many times in my doomed stint as an Amway salesperson back in the ’80s:
“If you can dream it, you can do it.”
“One way to keep momentum going is to have constantly greater goals.”
“Nobody ever wrote down a plan to be broke, fat, lazy, or stupid. Those things are what happen when you don’t have a plan.”
“Failure is not an option.”
Ouch. That’s the one I really just cannot bear, for it is without grace. Seth Godin gets it. If we can’t fail, we fear to try. We quit before we ever even start.
No, I prefer the tune from the TV series for toddlers, Little Baby Bums (don’t ask me to explain the title, I can’t. It’s British. My one-year-old granddaughter adores it. It’s where most of my life philosophy lessons are found these days).
We try. We try our best when we know there’s a risk of failure, but we’re safe to flounder. I have ever been a perfectionist, so hard on myself. When failure happened to me, I punished myself. Sometimes physically, in the form of withholding food or cutting myself. More often, emotionally: isolation, castigation, criticism. It’s been difficult to learn how to grant myself grace.
I manage and execute an event for my job. It’s just two days, but over 40,000 people attend; I plan all year. When I took the job, I inherited a chaotic, sloppy mess with little credibility; in five years, I have held myself to exacting standards, taking an occasion suffering from mismanagement and on the brink of failure to one with credibility and popularity in the educational community. I have worked really, really hard, and I am proud of it.
This year, though, was more of a struggle than it has been in a long time. My boss held a figurative ax over the event and my job, I found myself trying to work for three separate employers while taking care of my infant granddaughter. I had less support staff than I have ever had. I was living in a state of stress and anxiety that I had not experienced in ten years; and that time I was admitted to a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown. I faced a choice between my mental and physical health and a perfect event. And so… I gave myself permission to ease up. A couple of details were missed.
And wouldn’t you know it, this was the year that the criticism had to come. I’m still stinging from it, to be honest. This is when the mantra “Failure is not an option” is, to be blunt, a load of BS. The criticism may very well have been valid, though it can be tough to take when the critic is not privy to all the elements of the situation. Author and researcher Dr. Brene’ Brown describes living with a strong back, but soft front. It’s how we can live with strength in pliancy. My back was not quite strong enough to execute a perfect event this year. My front has to be soft enough to hear the criticism without taking it to heart.
When we can’t fail, we can’t try new things. That’s the bane of innovation. But just as important, if we fail but can’t get back up, dust ourselves off, and keep going, we live in pain. We become depressed. Ill. Anxious. Resilience is not born out of dwelling on our failures. Nor is it found in sitting in stasis. No, resilience is created when we have the courage to try coupled with the grace of self-forgiveness, no matter the critics who will inevitably come forth.
Failure must, in fact, be an option.