When I was a little kid, there was this great little ditty on Sesame Street that went something like this: “Everyone makes mistakes, oh yes they do! Your mother and your brother and your dad and sister, too, woo! Big people, little people, everyone makes mistakes! Everyone makes mistakes! So why can’t you?”
Clearly, this particular televised teaching moment stuck with me because it’s still in my head several decades later. But what also stuck were the images that went along with it: silly, clumsy, “Aw, shucks!” moments like spilling milk. It both gripped and terrified me at the time. On the one hand, the crazy-making work I was already doing to try to fix my imperfect family by trying to perfect myself made me want to stand up and shout at the television: “Hold up a second here! I can make a mistake and it will actually be OK?!” And on the other hand, I wasn’t buying it for a minute. I knew that mistakes so much worse than spilling milk were happening all around me, and if everyone I knew was doing their best to pretend they weren’t, clearly these mistakes were to be avoided at all costs.
Is it any wonder that I became ever so slightly tightly wound?
These days, failure and mistakes are all the rage. You can’t open a magazine or watch a TED talk without the “gift” of failure being promenaded around like some kind of one-eyed pet from the pound that miraculously managed to get adopted into an adoring family despite its incurable flatulence and compulsion to eviscerate squirrels. And while I would agree that you absolutely cannot succeed without embracing failure, and that we would clearly all be better off if we learned to compassionately accept our mistakes, it’s one thing to hear these things from people on the other side – another thing entirely to know how to live through it.
Case in point: weathering failure is a lot easier for some of us than it is for others. It’s never easy, but I’d wager that the extroverted entrepreneur with crocodilian emotional skin is going to be able to sail over his gaffes a little more easily than, say, your average artist who spent most of the recesses of her childhood crying in the bathroom and angry at herself for crying in the bathroom. You’re supposed to get over slights in this country, develop a thick skin. But how can anyone with a thick skin let the world penetrate her enough to inspire the kind of creativity and insight we all want to see on the page, canvas, or dance floor? In other words, you can’t work deftly with the nuances and complexity of our collective experience if you’ve got falconer’s gloves on your hands.
What’s more, very few of us ever get comfortable with failure or mistakes of any kind. No matter what we may say at dinner parties, past failures or mistakes never dissolve into neatly shelved packages of experience. I promise you that every time that rock star thinks of the time she fell off the stage, she shudders. And every time that slick novelist trounces out the number of times he was rejected by major publishers before hitting it big, he’s secretly clenching something.
And how, exactly, is knowing this actually helpful? Well, it took that little kid I described above almost three decades to really venture into taking those kinds of life-changing risks because every time she stumbled, she wondered why it hurt so much. What she didn’t know is that a life well-lived is going to hurt and heal so much more than she could have ever imagined. Failure is necessary to success not just because it helps you to learn from your mistakes, but because it helps you grow familiar with failure itself, to know that you can live with and beyond it even if you never get used to it, despite how much it stings every time it jumps out to bit you in the ass.
So yes, everyone does makes mistakes, and most of the time, a lot more than milk will be at stake. And you do need to fail in order to get to the next stage of discovery, but don’t be disappointed in yourself if that failure really, really hurts. The trick is not to become wise about failure after the fact, but to know that you can open your arms wide to failure in the moment, feel it pummel you with all its strength, and still get through. You can even laugh about it while its happening, or openly weep – better yet, do both.
OK: I promise this is happening. As I’ve been composing this, my phone has been buzzing nonstop under my butt. I just looked at it, and found out that my nephew, who despite a score of 1600 on the SATS and a straight A average at Andover was unceremoniously rejected from *insert obnoxiously top school here* a few weeks ago. It was his first big “failure,” and he was sure life was not going to go on, but we all grieved with him and got angry and messy and worried, just like good families do. And looky here: He just got into MIT!!! I’m so glad we all wept and groused and felt our stomach pains. The joy is that much more enormous!!!!