Like most human adults, I fear failure. It’s bred deeply into me, a primal fear, a distaste regarding the very idea of doing poorly at something.
As an American white kid, I grew up in a grading system that measured success with letters. For some kids, Bs representing horrifying failure, and for others, Cs represented great achievement and success. I figured out early on that senses of failure and success are very individual experiences, depending on upbringing and culture (family, community, religious, etc).
We measure success against failure in a million different ways. Through our appearance and level of fitness, through our career achievements, through our romantic pursuits, through our religious duties, through our children’s successes. We have specific ideas and roadmaps of what success should look like, and anything less is automatically felt and experienced as a failure.
I see this all the time in my office as a therapist. I may have a client who owns a home, has a thriving business, and is incredible shape, but he feels like a failure because his wife is struggling with depression; I may have a client who is in an incredibly happy marriage and three thriving children, yet she is consistently unhappy because she can’t lose ten pounds.
We are constantly putting forth effort to avoid failure. And we fail to realize that in our very essences, because we are human, failure is simply a part of our existence.
I read a lot of biographies. Most biographies are written about or by people who are remembered for being a celebrity in one realm or another. And consistent failure is a part of every story, every single one of them. And even when major successes are achieved, variable failures will still follow.
David Bowie went through several different bands and band managers before his music caught on, and it was after that that he struggled with drug addiction and failed relationships. Oprah Winfrey had a career of hits and misses before her talk show caught on. Harvey Milk lost several elections before he was ever elected to public office, shortly before his assassination. John Stockton missed a lot of shots with the basketball before he made it famous on the Jazz. I could give thousands of examples.
When I look at my own life, I am realizing that failure is not a word I am afraid of any longer. I have had many successes, most easily viewed in the accomplishments of my children, who are happy and well-adjusted and creative and beautiful. I have a Masters degree. I have published a book. I have lost 80 pounds. I successfully transitioned to a full and authentic life out of the closet. I have a lot of friends and loved ones. I am engaged in pursuits that inspire my mind and fulfill my spirit.
Lately, my old fears of failure have worked their way out of my subconscious into my life. I have put a lot of energy and effort into passion projects that have born little fruit. The sinking results of these ventures, which I have put time and money and collaboration behind, have left me with a sense of dread. This, in conjunction with the death of my best friend Kurt, have left me a little empty and withdrawn internally lately, and I’ve had to take time to sort out what that means to me and my journey.
And in truth, in the scheme of things, it means very little.
Musical artists can spend hundreds of hours composing what they feel is a masterpiece, putting their entire hearts and souls behind it, only to have no one purchase the product, while the bubble gum piece they produced years before is played on the radio every ten minutes. An actress can spend months in a role she is made for only to have the movie flop commercially, while a bit part in a science fiction show makes her immortally famous. A painter can take five years to complete a masterpiece that no one will ever see.
I’m 37 now and I’m embracing the parts of me that I have avoided much of my life. I am an artist. I am a writer. I am a historian. I am a creator with a hungry and passionate soul who strives and wants and desires.
And my long-term success isn’t in my financial prowess or my academic pursuits or my physical endurance. It is in my spiritual soundness, and in my inner balance and peace, and in the smiles of my children. And in doing things that I love. And that may make me a huge success in the eyes of the world, or it may just make me quietly happy in the here and now. And either way, that is enough.
And even when I’m “enough”, failure will still be part of the journey.