A couple of days ago, a status popped up on Facebook’s “On This Day”. It read:
“thinking about switching majors… ugh.”
I remember that day. I received a D on one of my first Calc III exams–and this was the first time I’ve ever received any grade lower than a C+ on anything ever. So it seemed like a huge failure at the time, and sure enough, I wanted out because of it. Nope–didn’t want to major in math, with a minor in secondary ed. At least I got the part about switching majors from math right… Elementary ed was much more my jam.
I grew up in a household where failure was just not acceptable. You went to school, anything lower than a B is deemed not that good, anything you started, you finished, and if you weren’t good at something, it just means that you didn’t have enough: practice, time put in, work ethic… and so on. I get it though. I am a daughter of immigrant parents, whom if they had not succeeded, it meant a poor quality of life, a waste of a sacrifice to move their life here–in their eyes, if there was no success, it was a failure.
Unknowingly, this provided many mental obstacles for myself, as I was not always a quick learner outside of school, or outside of what I was interested in. One thing that comes to mind aside from getting a D on that Calc exam was learning to play the piano. I couldn’t understand it–several embarrassing, family performances, recitals, and competitions–I’d underperform. Whether it was due to a lack of practice, or the fear of failure–I underperformed beneath expectations–of myself–even though the audience would applaud, the judges would score decently, and I went home with some sort of recognition. It didn’t mean much though because to me I still didn’t do well enough.
So this fear of failure become a common occurrence throughout my life. From the fear of missing a stunt on the State Cheerleading competition floor to not being hired after professional job interviews. This little knot in my throat would always seem to tighten every time I felt like I had underperformed, or scored myself another “fail”.
I don’t exactly know when it was that this had begun to diminish, but I do know that there were not many things I started in my childhood that I have committed to for longer than I had committed to my academics, and as an extracurricular, as long as I committed to piano lessons.
I want to amount to some of this perspective shift to when I first started running as an attempt to take control over my 1) free time and sanity in addition to 2) my health.
When I started dating my partner at that time, he was well invested in lifting weights and spending time at the gym. At the time, it wasn’t my interest, so I began to run, attend Zumba classes, and started doing what I thought was good for me: eating salads, eggs, canned tuna, yogurt and granola, green smoothies, drinking water (definitely didn’t know about nutrition in the way I do now!).. and soon enough I was signing up for my first 5K’s, and completed a half marathon race in 2013.
Hallelujah–a moment of triumph–I ran the race, and despite my finish or placement (which surprised myself, actually, just over 2 hours), there was no quit. From the moment I signed up for it, I made it my goal to simply finish without stopping to walk–and from there, I no longer felt fear of failure, but rather a determination to make it happen.
Hell, there were MANY nights, after student teaching, or Saturday MORNINGS after a long week of school, where I just did NOT WANT TO RUN. I wanted to run away and I wanted to just sleep in… or go home and relax. But I didn’t; I went to Planet Fitness to run on the dreaded treadmill–or I hit the pavement and went the miles because I knew I wasn’t going to quit come game day. I had to prove it to myself that day. This time it wasn’t for the audience, for my parents, or for a report card–it was for me.
Many of you already know how much CrossFit has evolved to become a major part of my life. In fact, so much so, that it’s now become my full-time job to coach others in CrossFit and nutrition, as well as train on a regular, full-time basis.
Just like the past, I had many moments early on where I faced the fear of failure once again. The fear of failing a lift, not finishing a workout, being embarrassed in front of others, letting my coach down, letting teammates down in competition, being too lazy to attend a class, not meeting expectations… it was years of this… even up until last year’s CrossFit Open. Phew—I was a mess in all sorts of ways (a story for another day).
So I’ve realized now that there were a few defining moments that have helped me overcome my fear of failure within the past couple of years, and it’s been rare for me to say that I’ve felt the frequency of fearing to fail since this realization. Here they are:
- Constantly getting up in front of 25-30 kids at a time, being able to teach a lesson, most of the time one where I would have no true idea of how well it would go, how well I would be able to teach it, manage the students, and how well they would learn the concepts. Every time I taught a lesson, or even made my next MOVE, there was an opportunity to fail–but there was no option but to continue on and learn from it if it bombed. Spoiler: most of the time, they didn’t–and 90% of the time, the lessons were just uphill from there with the more courage I gained and confidence I reaped from the feedback from my students, colleagues, parents, and administrators.
- Signing up for local CrossFit competitions (my first one being 4 months in!). So at first, I would typically compete on a team–surprise, surprise–less room for the opportunity of “failure” there. However, with the Open as well as other local competitions, I had entered as an individual, and again, I wanted to prove to myself that I was going to 1) finish it on my own and 2) my work was validated through my performance.
- Moving out of my parents’. To me, being able to fully become independent of my parents was a HUGE step towards overcoming a fear of failure. Not only did it mark a life landmark, but it also allowed myself to learn many life skills, which I didn’t happen to learn in my academics, or may not have learned later on had I not moved out. Sorry, mom, but even before moving out, even choosing a major and a school that you didn’t originally approve of, was also an event that allowed me to overcome more fears lingering from childhood.
- Switching career paths. After four years of teaching in the public school system, in addition to the time I spent in undergrad and grad school, I made a switch to become a fitness and nutrition coach at CrossFit Des Plaines. It was a long transition process, but this may have been THE number one transformative event in my life that has helped me shift perspectives on failure. Read more about it here if you want to know more about it.
- A recent talk with my coach about my training and performance. Of all the things we discussed for what seemed like an eternity, the one thing that stuck with me was him telling me: “You… need to fail more.” We discussed how I focused so deeply on “perfect form” and making sure I complete lifts or make my movements look pretty… however, if I wanted to get better, especially as an athlete, I needed to fail more.
And since then, it echoes in my ear every day–whether it was to do with my daily training sessions, or in my new line of work–it’s not that I have to fail more and pout about it or give up, but rather, fail, recognize it as an event and not a state-of-being, and continue on in order to improve.
A book I’ve been reading called Why People Fail: The 16 Obstacles to Success and How You Can Overcome Them by Simon Reynolds has been an eye-opener to the perspective I’ve had on failure for too many years in my life. In one of his last chapters, he contrasts the mindset of high achievers and those who do not persist enough:
The typical person’s view of failure is that it shouldn’t happen . . . So it’s no surprise that after they fail three or four times their emotions get low and they’re ready to give up.
That sounds exactly like a version of me I once knew so well. He continues:
Contrast that attitude to the mindset of a high achiever. When champions go for a goal, before they even start out they know they are going to fail numerous times. They comprehend that all substantial success is built on the back of failure. This is absolutely clear in their mind, so when they encounter an obstacle they are not surprised or concerned.
So about a half novel later, I’ve finally come to this realization about how empowering and transformative it has been to expect and embrace the experience of failures. It’s given me the drive to attempt many things I don’t think I ever would’ve. I’ve gained a sense of courage I never really had for decades.. and I am excited for all the new prospective ideas, projects and accomplishments I have envisioned–despite the fear of failure.
The GOAT said it himself:
I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.