As a former therapist, an auntie to an ever-expanding brood of children, and someone who’s curious about people, I’m always struck by this simple truth: The younger you are when you learn something, the easier it is to do as an adult. Speaking a foreign language. Identifying feelings. Navigating social situations. The earlier you pick something up, the more naturally you can execute it as you grow up.
Now that I’m well into adulthood, there are many things I’m glad I picked up as a kid — a solid work ethic, the ability to talk to strangers. But one thing missing from my repertoire was how to deal with failure.
It wasn’t hard for me to avoid failure in school. The schools I attended, though ranked among the best in the state, did not have an atmosphere of competitiveness. Since I wanted to be the best student in every regard, this was an ideal environment in which to excel. At my senior honors convocation, there were student awards for each of the 4 major subjects — English, math, science, and social studies. I won all four. I wasn’t amazing at everything I did — I was a mediocre violin and piano player at best, I was a terrible Chinese school student, I spent every musical in the chorus — but when it came to things that I put effort into, that really mattered to me, I excelled. I did not learn how to fail in school.
It wasn’t hard for me to avoid failure in college. I went to a school that was competitive but a shade below elite, and I studied psychology, which shielded me from the premed gunners and the engineering whizzes. I didn’t take many risks; I took about twice as many psych classes as I needed, when I should have used those credits in areas I would never get to study again. My risk aversion was reinforced by the school itself, which was big and good at pretty much everything, so you couldn’t just, say, be in a musical for the hell of it; you’d be auditioning against musical theater majors from one of the best programs in the country. You couldn’t just join the solar car team on a whim; you’d be competing against engineering majors from a top-ten engineering school. And so on. There weren’t a ton of opportunities for people to join things because they wanted to participate but weren’t necessarily very good, with the possible exception of intramural sports. (And even there, varsity athletes — the ones you saw on TV, dissected and analyzed by professional commentators — made cameos from time to time, as my friends who played basketball with Tom Brady can attest.) So even the school itself encouraged me to stay in my lane, which I did, and I received a lot of awards at graduation as a result. I did not learn how to fail in college.
Things started to shift in graduate school. My school wasn’t competitive, but I was learning how to be a therapist, and there I failed constantly, especially at the beginning. It was deeply unpleasant — and unfamiliar — to regularly be in a situation where I didn’t know exactly what to do next and I was just as likely to make a bad move as good one. Not to mention that the outcome wasn’t completely up to me. Sometimes I was responsible for a bad session or a client not returning, but there were probably times when these things had nothing to do with me — when the client was having a bad day, or they didn’t have a way of getting to the session, or they simply weren’t ready for therapy. I didn’t like that failure was not only a perpetual threat but also something I couldn’t always control, that I could put forth my best effort and still receive a less than optimal result. And though I finished the program a much better therapist than when I started, the mistakes never ceased. So in grad school, I had my first experiences of real failure — at something I was putting effort into, that really mattered to me. But I still graduated at the top of my class. And I left the field immediately thereafter.
Given my discomfort with failure and how fastidiously I’ve avoided it, I find it deeply ironic that I’ve chosen to pursue writing, a profession in which the sense of failure is constant. Writers I admire from every genre, from Ann Patchett to Ta-Nehisi Coates, have testified to this fact. I’m continually plagued by the thought that I’m not writing enough. The words on the page often don’t live up to what I have in my head. When it comes to submitting work for publication, rejections outnumber acceptances by an order of magnitude. I can think of few other professions in which failure is as omnipresent as it is in writing. It isn’t simply an occasional thing or even a day-to-day thing; it’s present at every moment, as Rachel Shtier has written, often more palpable than inspiration. I am finally learning how to sit with failure, because it accompanies the work that I love most.
And in about 2 months I will be a parent, which, by all accounts, is a steady stream of failures — magnified by the fact that these missteps affect not only you but also a little person who is none the wiser. I will soon be engulfed in failure. My main comfort here is that everyone fails in this domain; it’s only a question of how, and how you repair the disruptions that arise. I am holding fast to the notion of the good-enough parent that I learned in grad school. You do not need to be a perfect parent, this theory goes; you simply need to be good enough. This may not come naturally to me, but it’s probably the only way I’ll survive without being shattered.
I don’t mean to suggest that not failing a bunch when I was younger has been unilaterally bad for me. To the contrary: Experiencing early success gave me a sense of self-confidence and self-efficacy that’s been incredibly valuable in my work, in my relationships, in every aspect of my life. And fearing failure has helped me strive for excellence. It has fueled long hours of writing papers, studying for exams, editing theses. It has forced me to attend to the smallest of details. It has rendered me incapable of half-assing most things. Because I’ve sought to avoid failure, I know how to work, and I know how to do good work — which are not small things. But it’s also meant that as I’ve gotten older and experienced the setbacks that are an inevitable part of life, I’ve had a harder time dealing with them than people who experienced them more often when they were younger and learned how to manage them then. I don’t doubt that I would have benefited in the long run from taking more risks, from trying things that had no guarantee of success.
So here I am, in my early 30s, finally learning how to fail. I am steeped in it, all day every day, and finding that it does not kill me. I am learning how to live with the discomfort. I am learning that feeling failure constantly is not the same as being a failure. These are all lessons that would have been easier to swallow as a child, I’m sure — but it looks like I’m making up for lost time.