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The Year of Failing

365 days of refusing to stack the deck in my favor

In 2013, I read Rachel’s piece about choosing a verb for the year, and I loved it. I suck at resolutions (doesn’t everyone?) and December 31st isn’t my most reflective day anyway. A verb though, I could choose a verb. And the verb I chose in 2013 was Fail.

Most everyone I told about this was indulgent, or thought I was joking. My sister-in-law, Jess, was the only one who called me crazy to my face, several months later over the Thanksgiving dinner table. “Fail?” she said incredulously. “Why would you choose failure as a theme for a year?” Here was my thinking, which I explained to her: I think I’m a successful person. One of the reasons I’m successful at the things I take on is because I stack the deck—for years I’ve really only attempted things I’m already pretty good at, or have the skills or connections that I know I can apply to master it quickly. Most of the time, this is a good strategy: you can’t argue against playing to your strengths. The catch is that I’d gotten so used to being successful that now I was pretty afraid of failure, and choosing projects and activities that I was good at left me with a fairly small menu of opportunities. I was catching myself saying no to things that sounded interesting or fun because I couldn’t confidently envision the outcome—or because I knew I sucked at it. I realized that I was so good and so comfortable at what I was doing, especially for my work, that I could do almost all of it without really trying. And I was just a little bit bored. So I decided that, in 2013, I would say yes to more things that I was pretty confident I would fail at.

I started small. I joined a co-ed softball team, and since I’d already embraced the fact that I am uncoordinated to the point of frequently walking into stationary objects, I didn’t put any pressure on myself to be any good at it (and I wasn’t), but it was fun. It was fun enough that I decided to take a bigger risk. I applied for a new job, and got it, and then promptly realized that I didn’t know anything about what I was supposed to be doing, so I spent my days making things up and faking confidence. Also around this time, we got engaged, and while I was pretty sure how the proposals were going to turn out, it was still a risk to take a steady, stable, relationship and put it under some intense scrutiny and pressure. And finally, since I was on a roll, I decided to apply for an internship to write about being engaged and planning a wedding, even though I had no writing experience to speak of.

I learned a lot during the year of Fail (make that a year and a half, I think my verb for 2014 was more of a groan). Some of the things I learned were things that I had anticipated—embracing failure was liberating, and made my life more interesting, and the increased opportunities for failure didn’t negatively impact my relationships, so there was less to be afraid of. Something I didn’t anticipate coming from the year of Fail was that taking bigger risks raised the stakes. I gave myself permission to try some things that really mattered to me, or became really important to me, and in those things, I definitely do not want to fail. I love my work and it’s crucial to me to do the things I can competently. Same with my marriage—I want so much to be a good partner, to build a great life with Julie. I like the writing too. Embracing failure gave me some distance—if something didn’t go well, I could laugh it off, since failing was itself the goal. Now I had things in my life that I cared very much about, and admitting that I cared about those things, and would not be able to immediately brush it off if I failed at them was scary. Exhilarating, and precious, but scary. In 2013 it was a lark, an experiment with some unintended positive outcomes, but 2014 was standing on a cliff on a windy day—I wanted to hold tight to all of the good things in my life, but I was not convinced how well I would be able to do that, since I was outside of my comfort zone now, and failing at those things was not an acceptable option anymore.

Of course, weddings, and job interviews, and internships are practice leaps for the much bigger ones we have planned. Now there is marriage, work, and figuring out if I’m a writer and a social worker. Discussions are underway about moving or not, buying a house, becoming parents. I don’t know anything about these things. I’ve never done them before. In addition to being human, and therefore flawed, my lack of experience in these areas assures that I will not do any of these things perfectly. Which is frustrating, because I care about them and, damn it, I want to do them flawlessly and effortlessly. But even accepting that I won’t do them perfectly, failure isn’t an option in any of these areas either. Failing as a wife, or a mother, or a therapist would be a huge deal—and I’m not willing to accept those consequences. So the choice is this: do these things, or don’t do them. Take the risk, accept that it’s scary and hard but also possibly awesome—or don’t.

The year of failing taught me a few things that help me approach new, larger, leaps. First is that it’s hard to fail utterly. If you’re willing to apologize, learn, try again, that’s usually available, even if it’s not fun. People are resilient and forgiving. Second is that I have support in all of these big risks. Help is there if I ask for it, and there actually aren’t any bonus points for doing it all by myself.

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