Learning the Art of Failing
I was taught to never fail. Not in an entitled “millennial” way, but in the sense that failure was not an option. Failure had severe consequences, and I never wanted to experience them; so I did my best to never fail.
Call it charmed, lucky, blessed… This worked for me until about halfway through college. I failed my first class, like, actually failed. Horribly and tremendously. It shook my confidence in a way that felt irreparable. I thought I’d never graduate, that I would end up a failure in life. This wasn’t the case, though I had to take some scary steps to ensure that.
From the moment I got that F, I knew I wasn’t trying anymore. I wasn’t trying to succeed. I wasn’t trying to do well or be the perfect student I’d always felt the need to be. It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t understand the material, though it felt that way at the time, it was that I didn’t really care if I knew it. I was interested in it, but I didn’t want it to be my life’s work. The class was a 5 credit course, Organic Chemistry; on my way to a Biology degree, then medical school, then being a forensic pathologist. That was the plan. It had been the plan since I was 12 years old. I had taken three years off to make sure I really wanted higher education, but other than that, it was the plan. I was now 22, and what had been the goal/plan/road map for a decade was now torn apart. Not because I failed O Chem, but because I didn’t care I had.
I had to take a moment to look at my life and where I really saw it going. I had to decide if it as an off semester, or if the plan was no longer right for me. It was the second one. I had grown and changed since I was 12; and while I still loved science, I also really loved a lot of other things I didn’t even know could be considered careers at 12.
What I really wanted to be at 12 was an actress, but I had been discouraged from it and told it would be hard to make it so I shouldn’t try. I should try to do something with my skills in math and science because those jobs would always exist. Acting was a crap shoot.
This is accurate.
I don’t think it was even bad advice, other than it made me decide at a very young age not to take risks and end up disappointing the person who had said it. People who said it? Anyway…
I found myself at the end of my Sophomore year with an entire summer to decide what I was going to change my major to. I knew I had to, but had no idea what to go with. I looked through what was available at my college, looked at the courses I’d taken already, weighed what I thought I could see myself doing, and looked at where I’d been finding the most pleasure in my college career so far. I asked myself what I could do for work that wouldn’t seem like work. I landed on something I’d been doing only as a side project for fun: Film Making. This wasn’t something my college offered, though they did offer a communications degree. I decided on that (after some deliberation with Criminal Justice, because why not be a lawyer or join the FBI? It would be close enough to pathology, right?) and that I would make sure I got an active internship in film. Then I might even do grad school if I felt I was unemployable.
All of this, the journey I went on through it… That was the kick start of learning to fail and learning to allow myself imperfections. It’s hard to understand you literally cannot be perfect when you’ve spent so many years telling yourself you have to be. I recognize now that I never was and that striving for it only makes me anxious and feel awful. I also have a hard time believing that I wasn’t as close to perfect as I could be at times in my past, because I was trying so hard to be. I was an ideal me in some ways; but it was an ideal me based on other people’s definition of ideal, or at least my interpretation of their definition of ideal. That isn’t a way to live, and it isn’t perfection. It’s an illusion that in time has to fade. You can’t keep on a mask forever. It needs repair, painting…
If the mask never came off it would age and water log… It would eventually crumble off of your face. I think everyone builds up a mask at some point, it’s just a natural way of dealing with all the things you have to go through in life. The only variables for people are how thick the mask is, and how quick they are to take it off. Mine was pretty thick, and I never took it off, so it wore down pretty quickly. Maybe yours is light and you only wear it around certain people, that mask might last for a long time. Ask yourself if it’s a healthy mask though. Does it hurt you? Does it hurt your chances at good connections with the people around you? Does it keep you from happiness you might find if you take it off?
I let mine crumble, and I haven’t looked back. I keep finding new ones I’ve put on here or there, and I try to take them off as I go too. I’ve decided that failure isn’t so scary, that I can handle it. I’ve decided that failing and being hurt are worth the experiences I get to have in the process. I’ve decided to learn from every failure, even if in the moment it’s hard to remember that I learn and grow from failing… But then I wake up the next day, one day wiser, and I remember why failing is such an important art.