There is a lot of writing out there on the benefits of failure. Pema Chödrön tells us that failure spurs creativity, that in times of failure we are our most human, our most raw and relatable selves. Her famous commencement speech offers this spin on James Joyce’s thoughts on failure:
“[M]istakes are the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh look at things…And so in that space is when communication with others and all life happens, and my experience is that it’s from that space that our best part of ourselves come out.”
Then there are others that detail the brilliance of failure, how its inevitability should neither be surprising nor jarring but just part of the road to success. Wendy Davis hates losing so much that she put the “f” word in the title of her essay on failure (a word that I would totally use now, but won’t because my site is getting blocked at high schools for adult language). She then turns around to detail how her understanding of failure allowed her to reach her many political successes.
Millions of self-help quotes abound about the value of failure, that a winner is the person who keeps going when they’ve failed. Something about missing a bunch of free throws, or the light bulb quote. You know what I mean.
I see all that, I hear you.
One of my teammate’s favorite get-to-know-you questions is: “Do you love to win? Or hate to lose?” My newest answer to it is, depends on whether I’m winning or losing but, right now, I hate to lose.
I, the eternal optimist, recognize that failure is an important part of success. I know that it exposes our true character, that it hardens us and shapes us and helps us grow. As an athlete in a small community, it’s my job to spew positivity and valuable lessons. But after a couple of weekends of disappointing results, I gotta tell it to you straight.
Failure (expletive) sucks.
It is not magical. It can bring out the worst in people. It is confusing, and frustrating and exhausting. When you give your life to something, work for it, and truly believe that you’ll succeed, and then don’t—that is when you feel the most vulnerable. When we talk about the high highs and low lows of sport, these are the low lows, and no one else can truly understand you unless they, in that very same moment, are experiencing the same feeling.
That’s why I’m writing this. After the first week of racing (which happily coincides with finals, admissions and hiring season), there are probably a lot of people who feel great about the world (and their results, grades, matriculations, jobs). High five to you guys, I’m proud of you. Now go away.
To the rest of you: let’s take a moment to give ourselves a good wallow.
Because, sometimes, when we’re not on top of our mental game and Michael Jordan positivity, not getting what we want or expected really hurts. This feeling comes after doing a lot of work, making huge goals, sincerely believing that we’ll accomplish them, and then just not. It happens when we have x, which was totally out of our control, come out of nowhere and blow it. Or, even worse, y, which was completely in our control, turn out to be otherwise.
Man, that’s tough.
Dealing with our disappointment is one thing, but what’s also hard is dealing with the people who are dealing with us as we deal with our disappointment (say that five times fast).
Parents, coaches, innocent bystanders—no one likes seeing us unhappy and they will gladly give us plenty of xs (things we can’t control) to help us see the light and get ahold of ys (things that we can). I’ve been given a lot of coping excuses to work with in the last two weeks concerning altitude, tricky conditions, or illness. I’ve been told on multiple occasions that it’s “just racing,” not to be upset, to move on. While slightly condescending, I know the people who told me all these things meant them in love, that they are true statements, that they’re intended to help, not hurt.
However, the best thing anyone has said to me through this failure came from my teammate, who herself experienced disappointment as of late. As we climbed into the van after one of those tough races, she accidentally poked me in the face with her pole. As I began to protest, she cut me off with a deadpan, uninterested and yet totally healing “You’re fine.”
Turns out, I was. I am. We are.
Even in these moments, the ones you and I are sharing right now, where we feel totally deflated, disillusioned, disappointed and (for alliterative purposes) distraught, we are fine. If you haven’t gotten it yet, failing sucks. Bask in its suckiness, really feel it, that’s ok. Wallowing is part of getting over disappointment. Coddling is not.
It’s hard for me to really feel it without getting dramatic, but remember that failing does not make us a failures. It does not make us a winners, either (no participation ribbons here), but, if we’re are still breathing at the end of it, we’re fine.
I would really love to end this blog with a quote about bouncing back, something about it not mattering that you fell but rather how fast you get up. I would love to do that, that would be easy.
The truth about failing is that it is neither easy nor simple. In some ways, winning is. And yet, we’re taught to enjoy winning and forget failing, as if the latter doesn’t lead to the former.
Instead of ignoring it, or sugarcoating it, sometimes experiencing failure in full, really letting those feels get felt, is the only way to recognize that you are not an outlier in experience, that maybe there’s more going on than a simple bad result. Investigating those feelings can help you find the confidence to get back up, apply for a new job, apologize, listen to your parents/coaches/innocent bystanders or clip back into your skis.
And maybe you’re not there yet, that’s ok. Take your time, and be kind to those who are trying to help.
But I’ll be the first to tell you, you’re fine.