I am imperfection personified. My teeth are crooked. My thighs rub together when I run. I resort to inappropriate humour when out of my comfort zone, which is often. I don’t chew my food enough. Everyday is a struggle to get out and exercise. Everyday I fail.
For much of my earlier life I viewed my failures with despair. My inability to hit a target, my lack of success in an endeavour, my natural talent at cocking stuff up, all seemed like total negatives. How could they have any redeeming features?
In a world that idolises the false sense of perfection – the faultless cover model, the family with the perfect kids, the photos of the ‘ideal’ homes – setting yourself up for ‘failure’ doesn’t seem very appealing.
This was a favourite of my dad’s. A man who knows a thing or two about mistakes. Blown up by a torpedo (he wasn’t even in a boat or in the navy), swan dived through a plate glass dining room table whilst shouting at me for arguing about who’d play Doc Savage, fell out of the loft hatch whilst shouting at me for imitating Jackie Chan in my bedroom.
Well Dad, it took a while, but I finally got it. It’s only at the edge of our limitations that we truly grow. Mastery only really comes to us when we understand how not to do something. If we have made no mistakes can we really claim true mastery of a subject, or have we just been lucky up to now? If we are practising a skill and it comes easy, are we really improving? For stuff to grow it needs a liberal application of shit.
This is where failure comes in. We don’t want to eulogise it or fixate upon, and it certainly doesn’t want to be our final destination. But failure is a good signpost that we are heading in the right direction of self improvement. It’s our own personal ‘Here Be Dragons’ sign, and what’s more heroic than taking on a dragon?
To use the training example, I’m always trying to impress upon clients that failure to be able to perform a movement or an exercise is in fact a positive thing. It tells us exactly where we are at and what we need to work on. I view it as our individual coal-face of fitness/health, the very place that we need to chipping away at.
Every time we fail at a task or activity, it is another opportunity to try again, only better. And again, and again. Sitting here beneath the glare of a florescent light, I am reminded of the quotes from Thomas Edison:
“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realise how close they were to success when they gave up.”
Sure, there are times when quitting is the right thing to do, but often it means quitting the way that doesn’t work and retrying it a different way. Performing back squats for me creates some issues, replacing it with the front squat negated these issues.
Ironically, if failure marks the frontier of our development, fear of failure is often acting like our boundary walls, keeping us contained. So often I have not done something, something that I really want to do, because I’ve been scared to fail, or look stupid, or doubt my ability. It can really hold you back.
We tend to stick to the things that we know we can do, and avoid that which is difficult. These little obstacles, these uphill struggles are often the very things we need work on in order to grow. I love to Deadlift. I feel sexy when I lift a big weight off the floor. But give me two 24kg Kettlebells to front squat and you’ll find me quivering like a whippet on a winters night, swearing profusely about how hard it is. Not so sexy.
I will continue to work on my deadlift, but the focus for me needs to be on the latter. To use a permaculture phrase, the problem is the solution.
I’ve long been an avid student of the Stoic philosophers and this idea is a fairly key one, with various proponents regularly putting themselves into awkward and troublesome situations.
Once a problem has been overcome, it ceases to be a problem. but we need failure and difficulties to highlight where these problems are. Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Emperor says it best.
So don’t let failure stop you. Next time it hits take a breath, thank the universe for giving you a lesson and another opportunity to tackle it, and relish the challenge.
Remember if you’re not being challenged you’re not being changed.