When I was a first-semester freshman in college, I flunked two of the first three tests I ever took. Shockingly, the world didn’t end, even though this state of disgrace was not something I was accustomed to. In way over my head in a medium-level calculus class and honors microeconomics, I quickly discovered that these people meant business. And business – especially the high-level program I had landed in – was not for me.
Once I got over the humiliation, private though it was (although I’ve pretty much ruined that now, haven’t I?), I thoroughly expected that this fall from grace would, in fact, be my salvation – life went on! My fear of failure would vanish! Alas, I still had to make it through the end of the semester, and the specter of doom – and the ultimate failure, flunking the entire course – hung over my life like a massive black cloud until I escaped to the safety of home for Christmas break, with only the ignominy of a C- to haunt my days.
Failure, like fear, can paralyze you or push you forward. Sometimes, failure is the only way up and out of a rut – in a job, a relationship – that has become so habitual that you can no longer see that it’s crushing your soul. Failure, I think, can be the subconscious kick in the pants we all need sometimes to just move along, already. If so, failure might be a critical element of success. Failure can help us move in the right direction by showing us what we’re not supposed to be doing. And sometimes, failure may be the only way out of a no-win situation.
I have spent the majority of my life trying very hard not to fail – not necessarily to chase success, but just to not screw up. Happily, I haven’t always succeeded. Lately, I’ve warmed up a lot to the idea of failure, not as an end in itself, but as a means to a different end. I’ve found that each failure prepares me for the next one. Like building blocks rising steadily skyward, what I learn each time around provides a stronger foundation for the next experience. Like an artist whittling away at a piece of wood, life’s hard knocks carve away the excess – the unnecessary, the badly chosen – one knife stroke at a time, until what’s left is just exactly what should be. How sweet is that?