In Defense of Failing

I’m a big fan of trying new things, and if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know I’ve written about many of those experiences.  I’ve shared about how yoga is connecting, how scuba centers you, and how rock climbing builds interpersonal trust.  But all of these things had something common – I felt sort of competent.  Or at least I’ve felt like with practice, I could become sort of competent.

But yesterday I tried ceramics for the first time, and so today I want to talk to you about failing.

When I arrived at the studio, I was bright-eyed and excited.  A new craft to try!  I love crafts!  But as we progressed through the steps, it was abundantly clear that I was the slowest learner in the class.  As we threw our clay on the table to work out air bubbles and create the shape we wanted, the teacher took the clay from my hands.  “I can already tell you’re going to be too heavy-handed,” she told me, shaking her head and finessing the clay into the right shape.

We sat down at our wheels and started spinning the clay into a tall pillar.  Somehow I chopped a bubble off the top of mine with my finger.  The teacher instructed me to get up, sat down at my wheel, and fixed my pillar.  We started making the edges of our bowl.  Mine got sloppy.  The teacher told me to get up, sat at my wheel, and fixed my edges so they looked great.  At each step of the process, the same thing happened – she asked me to get up from the wheel, sat down, and fixed my mistakes.


Let me fail!

As this progressed, I became increasingly irritated and discouraged.  I turned over in my mind whether I could ask for my money back for the remainder of the four-class series.  I fumed as she turned my ugly little lump of clay into a picture-perfect work-in-progress.  On about the fifth occurrence of her taking over for me, she misread my frustration and tried to reassure me.  “Don’t worry – it gets easier with practice.”

“But I’m not practicing!” I finally exploded.  After all, if what I wanted out of the class was a perfect ceramic bowl, I could have popped by a craft fair and saved myself a lot of time and money.  What I wanted was the experience!  It wasn’t about the outcome – it was about the process.

This reminded me of something Brené Brown writes about in Daring Greatly.  She says that parents often feel compelled to swoop in and save their children when they’re struggling.  She writes that this isn’t just unhelpful – it’s downright damaging.  It builds a sense of helplessness, teaches the child that they can’t fend or solve problems for themselves, and creates adults who have no sense of control or power in their world.

So she let me sit back down at the wheel and have a go at it myself.  You might think there’s a happy ending here, and there is – but not the one you think.  I crumpled my clay into a ball and started from scratch.  I did better the second time, but still ultimately ended up destroying my creation.  The teacher suggested that I come in during studio hours so that I would have something to glaze along with my classmates at the next session.  (As my dad put it, “you got detention in ceramics??”)

But here’s the thing – I had FUN!  And I was learning.  And ultimately, that’s why I was there.


Fear of failing is prominent

Whenever I meet with a new client, we set goals for their course of therapy.  Then I ask them to identify what’s standing in their way.  Nearly every time, here’s their answer: fear of failure.  But what if you weren’t afraid to fail?  What if it were part of a learning process?  Thomas Edison famously said, “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Growth mindset” is an idea has been circulating in the parenting literature in recent years.  What it means is that by contrast to a “fixed mindset,” you can learn and improve.  So I might say, “man, I wish I spoke Spanish but I don’t.  That really sucks.”  That’s a fixed mindset.  A growth mindset would be, “I bet if I download the Duolingo app, join a Spanish language MeetUp group, and practice regularly, I could really improve my skills here.”

Even when it refers to a positive quality, a fixed mindset can still be damaging.  A child who is told they are “really smart” (fixed mindset) learns that they can coast on that and stops striving.  A child who is told that they “work really hard” (growth mindset) learns that they have the ability to take on new knowledge and skills.

But let’s stick to the Spanish example.  If I’m terrified of failing, I will never try to learn to speak Spanish because I won’t practice. I’ll be paralyzed by the idea that I might accidentally do something mortifying – like saying “I’m pregnant” when I’m trying to tell someone I’m embarrassed!  (Pregnant in Spanish is “embarazada,” so that would be an easy mistake…)  It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  The only way to try something new is to take risks and embrace the vulnerable inevitability of failing.


Failing is different than failure

Herein lies the problem: we conflate failing with failure.  In other words, we believe that if we try something and are not successful at it, it reflects on our worthiness.  We protect ourselves by sticking to the familiar, and that keeps us safe.  If we never try anything new, we never have to wonder whether lacking a “gift” or  “knack” for it means we are flawed.

But as Brené Brown says, worthiness doesn’t have prerequisites.  You don’t apply for worthiness by filling out a form with your aptitude at different skills, your height and weight, your family history, or anything else.  You have inherent worth (and so does everyone else).  And once you learn to stop being self-critical every time you fail at something, you can find the fun!

You may have failed.  You are not a failure.

Maybe with practice, I will eventually create wonderful ceramic bowls, vases, and mugs.  Perhaps when I have a teacher who tells and shows me how to do things, rather than doing them for me, I will acquire a skill set and lean into the craft.  Maybe I have a hidden gift for ceramics, and once I have overcome a few growing pains, I’ll unearth it.

Or maybe I don’t have what it takes and I’ll always be awful at it.  Maybe I’ll never make anything other than soggy lumps of clay and an occasional asymmetrical mess of a bowl.  But in failing, I will have learned something – about the craft, and about myself.

And that – the opportunity to fail – is why I love trying new things.


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