No, not that “F” word. Not the “F” word that’s bandied everywhere from classrooms to boardrooms and lost most of its strength and shock appeal due to overuse. Plus, it’s not part of my vocabulary, either.
I’m talking about another “F” word. Failure. Yes, the “F” word that conjures up emotions and strong feelings of disgrace.
Anybody remember the “C” word from years ago? Growing up, I vividly recall people’s fear of it. It was Cancer. Back then, Cancer was a death knell. Today, however, people today don’t mind sharing their diagnosis, as cancer can now be fought with chemo, radiation and new forms of surgery.
But Failure – whoa! Is there a cure? A remedy? Like the Sword of Damocles, Failure hovers like impending Death and people seek to avoid it as the The Plague.
Metaphorically speaking, many would chafe if told to go and “F” themselves. Yet, if push came to shove, they would opt to “F” themselves rather than accept the disgraceful prospect of Failure.
Despite the degrading connotation of the first “F” word, the second “F” word – Failure – is regarded with far greater humiliation. Failure more greatly embodies the ultimate experience of getting caught with one’s proverbial “pants down”. And nobody really wants to suffer that kind of shame.
Failure shows up in all kinds of ways. Failure of a marriage. Failure of a diet. Failure in a relationship or even a job. There’s Failure to stay sober, plus a whole lot more.
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Surprisingly, people do enjoy talking about Failure. It’s discussed or, rather, gossiped about at work, during cocktail parties, and even over the phone. Sadly, however, Failure is often discussed when the subject matter, or “Failee”, is not present. Apparently, most people avoid talking about their own Failures, yet don’t hesitate discussing the Failures of others.
Author Dan Sherman, a colleague of mine, talks about why most people fear Failure in his book, You Can Be a Peak Performer. Dan references how our childhood experiences in school cause us to become fearful of mistakes: A’s are given out if we make no mistakes; B’s if we’re right about 80% of the time, and so on. Dan rightly comments on page 35 of his book, “We learned that mistakes were something to be avoided at all costs.” He’s right. This kind of conditioning sends the signal that our mistakes end up in Failure with a big red F.
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There’s a grand distinction between Failing at something and actually being a Failure in Life. I, for one, have racked up plenty of Failings during my own lifetime, but have never succumbed to viewing myself as a Failure. Here are but a few of my non-successes:
In grammar school, I was generally last picked for any kind of ball team on the playground. Not only did I lack eye-hand coordination, I possessed a fear of oncoming balls.
In second grade, my phys ed teacher wrote me up a number of times because I was both unable – and unwilling – to engage in floor mat work.
I was a poor piano student, often refusing to practice, begging to quit, and even locking myself in the bathroom when my teacher arrived at the front door. (Mrs. Canales, an absolute dear, was an early émigré from Cuba who taught me in a then foreign tongue. How that sweet woman put up with me in those early days I’ll never know.) I finally completed my classical piano course after 10 years of study, but have signed on with other teachers during my adult years to learn basics I missed as a child.
As a high school transfer student, I asked to repeat Spanish I. Maybe it looked bad, proved initially embarrassing, but who was I kidding? I had no idea of basic Spanish grammar and would have ultimately failed Spanish II anyway. Despite the humiliation of being “left back” (does anyone even use the term today?), the retraining from a new teacher proved more awesome and rewarding than I could ever have imagined.
I never picked up my report card at the end of junior year. I feared looking at a Chemistry grade of F. Despite hours of study and an ability to memorize tables, I was literally lost from chapter 1 page 1 when Mrs. Maccia introduced the “mole”. In this case, there was no alternate class available. I continued with this subject, trying to memorize what I never understood while enduring a sense of Failure for the entire school year. (I never did learn Chemistry and still don’t care about the mole.)
I functioned badly as a waitress aboard a floating restaurant during one summer while attending college. I had no idea of how to mix drinks or even open a bottle of wine. I regularly butchered the mixing of Chef salads (was that what they were called?) and apologized to kindly businessmen who’d find me haphazardly delivering their orders.
I was fired from my first job after college by a cousin-in-law – without any severance and without a reason why.
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A few months ago Taylor Branch, author of The Clinton Tapes, shared a private discussion he had with the former President. While the two chatted one night at the White House, the Commander-in-Chief revealed how proud he was of his daughter. Chelsea just auditioned for a particular role in an upcoming ballet performance. Given her aptitude, Clinton knew she would never qualify, yet he was struck by his daughter’s willingness to put herself out there – knowing she’d probably not make the grade.
“I tend to stay in my comfort zone and avoid things I can’t excel at; I’m so proud that Chelsea would try out for something, even knowing she probably wouldn’t make it,” was the author’s paraphrase of the former President’s reflective remark. Funny. I found myself seeing a part of Bill Clinton I could respect: Honesty.
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What a shame that our culture so abhors the “F” word. Make a mistake – FAIL – and you become a pariah; a bad person; even left back. But is being a pariah, labeled a bad person, or even getting left behind all that terrible?
What if our initial failures ultimately help us to grow?
Failure can be uncomfortable at best, exceedingly painful at worst. But what if the after-effects help improve us as individuals? What if we can learn something new about ourselves and about Life? What if our so-called Failures enable us to connect the dots of cause-and-effect that have been wrecking havoc in our personal lives – and in the lives of others?
What if these so-called Failures actually enable us to see others with greater degrees of empathy and lesser amounts of judgment? Leave us a tad more humble and a bit less arrogant?
What if our supposed Failures serve as passageways to becoming grander replacements of our previous selves?
These days, I’m probably racking up Failings by the day. Maybe even the minute.
Take today, for example. I’m attending another class on WordPress, a seminar designed to train business people on up-to-date, socially-interactive websites. I just emailed one of my instructors, advising her that I can’t even find the upload button for my Header, let alone size the image correctly. I need this Header – and the new website – to function properly before I leave for Italy next month. No website means I can’t present our various properties during a conference I’ll be attending.
This upcoming trip to Italy also means I’ll be failing my way through two more paths. For one, I’ll need to stumble through the Italian language to ask directions. For someone like myself who has difficulty backing out of her own garage, I’ll need all the help I can get navigating my way through four different cities and using multiple forms of transportation.
Have I “Failed”? Yes and Often.
Will I continue to Fail? I’m certain I will.
Am I still here? Oh, yea, I’m very much still here. And probably the better for it all.
I may be consistent in Failing, but I’m certainly no Failure.
The other F Word.
It’s not what it’s cracked up to be.
Wishing you personal Gain along Life’s Road of Failings, too.