Lately, in my work life, I’ve been thinking about why folks are so afraid of failure. And, conversely, why I’m not so concerned about failure. Is it me? Am I a slacker to think failure’s okay?

At practice this morning, I realized I’ve always failed. Practicing taekwondo, climbing, running, even lifting weights — the rule is: go to failure. Same deal with Ashtanga. And zazen.

In taekwondo, or any sport, you practice a move repeatedly (to get it into muscle memory) until your form breaks down. That’s where you stop. Obviously, you don’t want to keep going once the form breaks down, because then you are teaching yourself the wrong kinesthetics — but you do have to push yourself to the point where things go to hell. And you have to do it every time you practice.

Climbing: sure it’s fun to climb easy stuff, but it’s instructive when you push your limits. You’re never going to improve if you don’t try climbs that are over your head. Not wildly beyond your abilities, but enough to give you a serious challenge. Enough that at some point you’re going to wonder, “Why am I here?!?! What do I do now?!” So you feel that stab of fear and despair and frustration — and realize all you can do is take the next step. Whether you nail it or not is immaterial. You can stop and cry, but once you’re done, you’re still going to have to continue.

Zazen: You sit, your thoughts come and go. You’re on a meditation roll. Then, boom, you realize you’re daydreaming. Or obsessing on a thought. Uh oh. Back to the drawingboard. Is that failure, each time you have to start over? No. It’s practice. You do it over and over and you fail again and again. Sure, you can spend time berating your performance and hating yourself and hating practice. But in the end, you’ll save time and energy by just getting on with it. Again. And again. Forever.

And all of this, of course, brings us to Ashtanga. Ashtanga is designed to bring you face to face with what you can’t do, every single day. Even if you have an exquisite practice, you will, every day, end with a pose you just can’t do. Is that failure? Yeah, it is. And it’s exactly where you learn about acceptance and patience and humor and despair and ambition and greed and humiliation and grace.

I’m so tired of fear of failure. Fear of failure is all about letting the ego think it’s better than reality. Reality is where clumsiness is, and gravity, and obsessive thoughts, and resistant muscle and bone. It’s where we’re human.

Maybe this is why I’ve always loved to be around “edgy” people — whether writers or musicians or extreme athletes or Ashtangis — these folks are always trying to get a little further than they’ve been before, with their art or their sport or their practice. And that means they fail often and fail big.

I often feel isolated in the professional world. People seem to believe that being “professional” means being expert and invulnerable and polished and perfect.

Blech. I am so OVER that facade.


Master Hyang Eom said, “It is like a man up a tree who is hanging from a branch by his teeth; his hands cannot grasp a bough, his feet cannot touch the tree; he is tied and bound. Another man under the tree asks him, ‘Why did Bodhidharma come to China?’ If he does not answer, he evades his duty and will be killed. If he answers, he will lose his life.”

If you are in the tree, how do you stay alive?


4 Responses

  1. I love this post. Very thoughtful.

    Answer to question: grunt in morse code.

  2. Sign language.

    I liked this post too. All sport done with dedication and love teaches you humility and to accept your limits while working to your edge. You’re always going to fall over, the trick is not to mind.

  3. Hmm…very thoughtful post indeed. I thrice that. I’m afraid of failure too, so much so it causes me to panic and not make risky decisions. But then I think, you only live once, why live in fear? I like hanging out with people who aren’t afraid to take risks and jumps and I envy them, esp if they’re succesful.

  4. […] really enjoyed this post from donutszenmom: https://donutszenmom.wordpress.com/2007/01/18/rant/ Lately, in my work life, I’ve been thinking about why folks are so afraid of failure. And, […]

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