- Beauty & Style
- Contact Us
Like Us, Follow Us
Your lifestyle, your quirk
I’ll be honest: I hadn’t heard of The Conversation with Amanda de Cadenet, aside from some random article here on SQ, before I landed on the episode featuring Arianna Huffington, Olivia Wilde, and Sarah Silverman. Being a frequent reader of the Huffington Post and fascinated by the sheer number of books Huffington had in her den behind her, I set aside the clicker.
Huffington’s piece was the most interesting, although I liked the entire show. Towards the end, though, things got real. Amanda de Cadenet asked what Huffington would tell her younger self; she said something like “It will all turn out all right,” and then went on to discuss the importance of failure:
“We are afraid of failure…especially women. Fear of failure is what stops us more than anything … [my mother used to say] ‘Failure is not the opposite of success, it is a stepping stone to success. There is nobody who has not failed along the way.’ So I think it’s very important for young women especially, as they’re starting in life, to recognize that, because otherwise they only see peoples’ successes. So when I speak, I speak of my failures.”
I found myself nodding along with her, but something wasn’t quite right. As children, we’re taught, “If you don’t get it the first time, try, try again.” But far too many people I know—not just women—seem utterly paralyzed by the potential of failure. If you’ll allow me to borrow from Carrie Bradshaw, I got to wondering: “When did we become afraid to fail?”
I can only speak for myself and speculate on others. It may not be a specific age, but at some point during our childhood or young adulthoods, most of us realize we have something to lose. In my case, I’m pretty sure I developed my failure phobia in the school system. Sure, you can teach a kid to keep trying and to persevere, but that means absolutely nothing when most of our institutions judge students on a pass/fail basis. Look at our nation’s obsession with testing. Didn’t understand the homework? Fail. Didn’t apply the proper formula on the math quiz? Fail. Worse yet, failure is held up as something horrible that will ruin your life: “If you don’t do well in high school, you won’t get into college, and then you’ll flip burgers for the rest of your life.”
Fail test, fail grade, fail at school, fail in life. There will be no hope for us. No wonder we’re all terrified of failure by the time we hit adulthood – I quickly developed into a poor test-taker because I was so nervous about failing.
I won’t get into the various failures assigned to humans by assorted religious texts, which adds a whole different layer of fear to things. Great, not only do we need to avoid messing up our own lives, if we make too many mistakes we’re going to burn eternally/cease to exist/etc.
I think fear of failure triggers some weird sort of self-preservation, and as a result, many of us don’t try new things. We stick to the things we think are safe and the places that are known to us. We become the cog in the ever-shrinking machine rather than forging our own paths.
There are further societal pressures that contribute to fear of failure, but I maintain that a hell of a lot of it stems from the school system. We are encouraged to obey and do what good students before us have done, rather than think for ourselves. We basically don’t even learn to try.
How did I learn to fear failure? I remember being a kid willing to try pretty much anything, and at some point I just…stopped. It’s taken me a long, long time to learn to be willing to fail again. Two incidents stand out in my mind. I’m sure there were others, but these are the clearest inciting factors.
At age seven or so, one of my elementary school classes took place in a computer lab. Now, computer lab back then was basically typing lessons and the occasional game of Oregon Trail, where we tried to avoid dying from typhoid, even though no one was sure what exactly typhoid was. “You’re such a good student,” the teacher said to me one day. “You always do as you’re told.”
Little Suz basked in the praise and mentally noted that sticking to the safe path got her gold stars for the day. Students who bucked that trend and asked too many questions were scolded for being disobedient and often put on time-out. Little Suz did NOT want to get into that kind of trouble, so she always followed directions.
Modern Suz, being more rebellious by nature, is horrified and wonders when obedience became the most important thing we learned. I guess it fits into George Carlin’s theory of how we’re all being groomed to be obedient workers, but I digress.
When I was in seventh grade, I had a particularly icy English teacher whom I still wouldn’t mind throwing off a moving boat. One day, I left the book we were reading at home. She noticed immediately. “Suzanne, where is your book?”
“I’m sorry, Mrs. C., I left it at home.”
“Well, you can just stay in here during lunch and think about that.”
The me of today—sixteen years later—still can’t quite figure out why she had such a stick up her ass. I was generally a decent student who never gave her any trouble. She couldn’t just let me use a spare book, or read with someone else?
My twelve-year-old self, who had long ago been programmed to bow to authority, shrank down in the desk. “It was a mistake.”
“You’re not allowed to make mistakes.”
Failure 1, Suz 0.
Of course, this same teacher later publically shamed me for standing up to one of the girls that constantly bullied me, and thus may not have been a shining beacon of common sense. Not sure this is the sort of person who should have been in charge of a young person’s future.
And yet it’s failure that shapes us, often more so than success. It’s part of the whole “life is a journey, not a destination” mentality that keeps getting thrown around these days. So when did failure get such a bad rap? What else leads to us fearing it so much?
I’d be interested to hear your thoughts, Stylequirkers! Shoot me an email at email@example.com or tweet @suzisms to tell me what you think.