On reframing failure.
I was combing through the internet the other day, looking for something to spark joy other than wishing I had the means to buy that new lounge chair I’ve been eyeing, and I stumbled across a pseudo school poster — the kind your 5th grade teacher would hang up in the corner of the classroom for wandering eyes during the spelling test. But rather than spout some uplifting proverb with a photo of a cuddly kitten (relation to said lesson is still unclear) it said, in typographically-pleasing letters: Failure Is Actually An Option.
Now I don’t know what kind of household any of you were raised in, but failing was not high up on the list of activities I enjoyed when I was 16. Or 11. Or even 7, because I distinctly remember the disappointment I felt when I didn’t make it further in some multiplication game in the second grade. Failure has always been, in no uncertain terms, the worst possible outcome.
I wish I could blame this one on some parenting flaw but sadly, I don’t ever recall my mom and dad placing unsurmountable expectations on me. In fact, I believe I heard some refrain of “just do your best” on more than one occasion. So why on Earth was pre-pubescent me moping in her itty bitty plastic seat just because she couldn’t answer 8x6 faster than her desk mate? (It’s 48, I checked).
The reasons for my early-onset anxiety and self-imposed perfectionism are likely best left for my therapist to unravel. Instead, I’m much more inclined to focus on how and why 32-year-old me — after a lifetime of straight A’s and relatively single-minded ambition — is struck dumb by the concept of failure being anything other than a sign of loss. Of, quite literally, failing to meet the requirements of a task, or a goal, or (to raise the stakes) a dream, and why that is a consequence to avoid at all costs.
Sure, there are some real world issues that don’t allow for such philosophical waffling, but once the bills are more or less paid and you can feed yourself (for real though, America, can somebody solve this formula shortage for crying out loud?) there is a bit of breathing room to consider why exactly the fear of failure is still such a driving force in your life.
For the young ones in the crowd, this is also called your 30s.
Here’s an example: I had a day date with one of my best friends a few weeks ago, wherein we visited a downtown art studio for a two-hour watercolor painting class. There was lots of coffee, cool millennials and Gen Z-ers, and a random dog roaming about the space — in essence, it was an ideal Saturday afternoon. But the thing my friend and I were most enthralled with (other than a couple of uninterrupted hours to dish) was the fact that the whole point of the exercise was to embrace being bad at something. I mean, get the paint on the paper at least, but the next Frida Kahlo we were not.
Despite understanding the concept, did my heart swell a tad when the instructor passed by our little table and complimented me on my still life? Of course — see above: textbook perfectionist since basically birth. Yet there was something wholly novel about not trying, desperately, to excel at the particular task at hand with every ounce of energy at my disposal.
Obviously, I’m going to place some blame for my perfection tendencies on New York City. How could I not when the tag line is the city that never sleeps? Oh, you thought that we were all just partying every second of every day? I don’t care who you ask, but everyone in this rat-infested hell-scape (love you, mean it) is hustling like their life depends on it — because it does. The place breeds competition, ambition, and yes, perfectionism, because how else are you going to get that promotion or a second date if you’re not constantly polishing every single facet of yourself until it gleams? Failure has never been an option... or so I thought.
But if failing in this scenario means not “making it” in NYC, and we are, in fact, paying rent on time, then what exactly is the harm in dipping a toe in heretofore unknown waters? Could I, or anybody else who equates failure with not being good enough learn to reframe the concept of failing as trying? And even better, learning?
Now that I’m coming up on my (ahem) ten year college graduation, the idea of making space for yourself to learn almost feels foreign. Not in a you-have-to-eventually-learn-to-do-your- taxes (or better yet, make enough money to hire an accountant) type of way, but developing a new skill just for the sake of enriching your life. No stakes, no professor to impress. Truly, it’s antithetical to the capitalist mindset that is so prevalent nowadays, when everybody has a side hustle and everybody is monetizing their hobbies (guilty). But when you sit back and take stock of how you’re spending your free time, my heart hurts a little to think that I — and I assume many other people — believe that if you’re not exceptional, or at least marginally good, at said thing, it’s not worth the effort.
Still, the fear of failure is so potent, so engrained in every fiber of existence, that it feels as if once you hit that point wherein you have assumed the mold you aspired to and it is just fine, why risk damaging your arguably perfect façade by trying something totally new (and hello, scary AF)?
Lately, however, I feel like I’m stepping through a relentless fog and seeing an entirely new landscape of possibilities — a whole bunch of new stuff I can try, fuck up, change my mind about, and explore. Like a 7-year-old in a sandbox realizing that hey, eating this isn’t as much fun as I thought, so let’s move on without need 10+ sessions of therapy to unpack why I couldn’t succeed as a potential culinary sand wizard (who knows, it might be a thing).
I do think there’s something to the idea of being ten years removed from school and a decade into the workforce in America. I’ve proved my merit as a tax-paying, clock-punching citizen in more ways than one (truth be told, I’ve already maneuvered careers a few times at this point in my life). So for those of as at this stage where we can pause, look around, and think “huh, that’s cool — what else is on the menu?” I’m hopeful that any fear of failure can be cast aside for a new, curious, and hopeful naïveté, a fresh round of post-grad optimism that the world is your oyster. We’re just in our 30s now, and we know that it’s always wise to pack some Pepto in your bag for when your gamble — or your oysters — miss the mark.
So cheers to all of our potential failures, 10+ year graduates. I hope we can all make the next ten just as #anxietybeer worthy.
Three Weavers Expatriate IPA: I spent a few days in LA last week and obviously, being a big fan of West Coast style beers, I had to indulge in this tasty 6.9% ABV IPA. With notes of strawberry and pineapple, I happily sipped a glass sitting poolside while I tried to remember why exactly I live in New York City and no within earshot of the Pacific Ocean.
Puffy Lounge Chair by Faye Toogood: Here is said chair I keep drooling over, because yes, after a year+ of living in my apartment, I’m ready to recycle all my current furniture and update with a few new pieces. This style has so much character I’m simply smitten. I still need to go to the NYC showroom to, you know, actually sit in it, because the other thing about being in your 30s is that you do really want to be comfortable at the end of the day.
Jil Sander Square Toe Loafer: I’m in the midst of a massive shoe purge and vowing to stick with a quality over quantity mindset. I’ve been a Jil Sander fanatic for years, and the square toe loafers always make my heart skip a beat. The new season just dropped and I can think of a million ways to wear this beige-y butter yellow color with the rest of my wardrobe. For now, I’ll admire them from afar — but my birthday is only a few months away…