8.15.2005

The Essence of Failure

When I lost the last game of my high school soccer career, I failed. The team failed. At least we felt that way. We told ourselves that I think because it seemed easier to beat ourselves than to be beaten. We couldn’t allow the other team the satisfaction of beating us. No one wants to be beaten. They’d rather attribute it to some fault of their own; they’d rather act than be acted upon; they’d rather say things like, “it would have been different if I had done this or that,” or “if I had been on my game we might have won.” We said those things at least. I still say those things; I still believe those things, after all, you never really believe you didn’t stand a chance. You never really believe, even when it happens, that you’re capable of failure.
But if success was winning then we failed, and we failed well (that is, we lost by a lot) and of course there’s no going back to fix that no matter how much I wish there was. Life might just be too convenient if we could fix our mistakes. I guess that’s saying that there’s worth even in our failures, which sucks to say, but it may just be true. I’m still waiting to see.
I’ve seen shirts that say, “if you never fail, you’ll never succeed” which isn’t entirely true. There’s always at least one kid in your class in elementary that does everything right and makes you look stupid . . . unless you are that kid. I’d like a shirt that says, “if you never fail, you’ll never have to think about your failures.” Of course this is all a moot point if, like me, you can’t keep your hand out of the failure cookie jar.
Last year, one of my better friends lost his last high school game. I know I felt like I failed when I lost and if I felt that way, then he must have felt like Atlas letting the world slip. I lost by four goals. It was a team “effort.” He lost in shootouts. He was a good player and he was the only one to miss. But it’s interesting, while I look at my own four goal loss as a failure on my part, though there was probably little I could have done that would have made that big a difference, I couldn’t, and still can’t, think of his miss a failure. It would be easy to pin the blame on him, to say, “it would have been different if you had made that kick,” but I can’t. I don’t think anybody that night did, except him. I know he did; I know he still does, because I still dwell on my own loss. It’s easiest to make our own failures into mountains when they’re really just speed bumps on the way to something more important. It’s easy to expect more of ourselves.
I think, ultimately, I can’t pin that loss on Seth because I’m still hoping maybe my own loss won’t be pinned on me. I want to be justified. I want to feel alright about losing that game. I want to feel like it’s okay not to be perfect. I know it’s okay not to be perfect, but knowing is different than feeling. I know, though I hate to admit it, that when I lost, I lost to a better team. I feel like we should have won. I feel like we were the best team ever to dig our cleats into a soccer field. I think every team does and that makes losing all the more bitter. It destroys the flawlessness you see in yourself. It takes away anything that might have been special about you. Losing made me just another player on another team.
If that’s true, what about those who really are a success, but failed in some small way? Everyone who plays sports will lose eventually. It’s impossible never to lose. Likewise, everyone who plays life will lose eventually. Life is difficult for those who try to do it flawlessly. It’s much easier to simply accept that you will fail, then when it happens, it’s not such a shock and you’re a little more prepared for it. Getting to that acceptance is harder than saying it though.
Whether it’s losing a soccer game, flunking a test, misplacing your car keys, or disappointing a friend, losing is natural part of us, like eating or sleeping. If we go to long without eating we die. What happens if we go to long without failing? I don’t know that it kills you, but it certainly hurts more when it finally does happen. That was a big part of why that one game was so much different then any other game I ever lost. We had only lost three games all season. We were, in a way, setting ourselves up to be hurt. Failure doesn’t always hurt, but it does when you begin to think you’re invincible. It builds up and the longer you go the more you almost need to fail, just like you need to eat, then when it happens, it hurts, but it helps you too.
All this makes me wonder: is there actually some significance to failing? We say that you learn from your mistakes, but the unfortunate thing about that is we never choose to fail. It just kind of happens. If you don’t choose to fail then it also follows that don’t choose to learn (or you choose not to learn if you’d rather act than be acted upon). So is it better to succeed and never have to think back at four in the morning to things that went wrong and learn nothing or to fail and lie awake sleepless at night having learned that your not infallible, though you probably still don’t believe it. I guess that’s the issue for me. Pride makes it difficult to learn my lessons. I might have learned something from that game, but I’ve long since denied it, I’m sure. It’s probably still there like the dog’s chew toy that disappears somewhere in the house, and I might even dig it out some day when I’m rearranging my mental furniture, but for now I’m at a loss.
I think maybe failing is something I’m not good enough at yet to be judge and executioner of, yet I’m good enough at it to do it fairly consistently. I could fail in my sleep if I had to. I could probably even pat my head, rub my stomach, and fail at the same time, or at least fail at patting my head while rubbing my stomach. It can be somewhat hard to identify failure. There is no formula. There is no “if A and B then FAILURE” which is why it’s easy for me to say I failed but that Seth didn’t. Ultimately, I think we all think less of ourselves than need be. Our own personal qualifications for failure, our own standards, are set significantly lower than they are for other people, that way they’re easier for us to achieve.
I guess this is all leading to the question, “what is failure”? Is it not doing what you set out to do? Is it not rising to the level you feel you should have risen to? I’ve heard that you’re only failure when you’re a quitter, but I think it’s possible to be a failure at other times too. There are a lot of people that think we didn’t fail when we lost because of everything that came before that game, everything that made us successful. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then failure is in the eye of beholdey.
I still feel the painful failure of that game. I lie awake thinking about it; I dwell on it, how it could have been different, and how we could have, and sometimes, depending on my mood, should have won. But I’m only a failure to myself. I think to most people I was an unfortunate success that night. Maybe that’s just a nice way of saying failure though. I think maybe, that I shudder to admit, even to myself, that maybe my standards were just too high. If you’ll except nothing less than perfect then you’re bound to be let down.
The idea of failure is something we’re a little afraid to approach. Maybe it’s because it hurts sometimes. Maybe it’s because we’re afraid we’ll fail at approaching it, or at least, at approaching it successfully. And in the end, I think that fear is what it all comes down to. Fear is the backbone of the entire concept of failure. Everyone’s afraid to fail and wouldn’t failure lose all its power if we suddenly weren’t afraid of it anymore? Isn’t that what failure is - a fear of doing something, poorly wrapped up and disguised in some other word that tries to eliminate that fear? Wouldn’t we feel better about ourselves if we allowed ourselves the freedom to fail occasionally? And we wouldn’t be afraid that we might fail at this or that if we acknowledged that it could happen. It’s only when we expect to succeed, and fear that unforgivable failure, that failure really hurts.
My professors are always encouraging me to “allow myself to write a bad first draft.” I think they just might be on to something. I guess that’s what they get paid for. There is a certain freedom in allowing yourself to fail. You don’t have to expect as much out of yourself. That’s not to say that we ought to set low goals for ourselves. We just shouldn’t feel guilty, and even criminal, if we don’t achieve our high ones. Writing the bad draft isn’t so bad. There will be other drafts. Losing that game isn’t so bad. There will be other games. Failing isn’t so bad; there will be other chances.
I guess if I solved one thing I’ve found that if Seth wasn’t a failure, then I, despite all my feelings, can’t be either. My self-viewed success didn’t hinge on one shot like his and actually, it didn’t hinge on that game either. It was something bigger, even bigger than the season. It hinged on me. I couldn’t be a failure. I’d like to think that I’m good at soccer and that game haunts me, keeps trying to tell me that I’m not as good as I thought. That game was a failure to me, not because I lost, not even because it ended the season, but because it destroyed the thing I wanted so badly and had worked so hard to become. It shot me down, put me in my place.
I think maybe that’s ultimately what failure is: being put in your place. Since it’s mostly in your own mind, its effect must be destroying something there, in your mind, not something elsewhere. Losing that game never destroyed anything except my hope of winning that game and eventually winning a state championship. I guess then, there really is something good in failing, besides learning lessons that you will, inevitably, forget. Failing puts you in your place and that’s always good because we are always trying to climb out of our place into something a little too ambitious, a little too perfect. It doesn’t make it less painful, just more practical.

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