Failing is inevitable, but becoming a failure is not.*
-*Adapted from quotes from David Kleinhandler and Debasish Mridha
Have you ever failed? I mean, have you ever done a full face plant? And publicly? In front of a lot of people?
I have. Both literally and figuratively. Many times.
I have plenty of stories of struggle to share that started in early childhood and extend well beyond high school and into adulthood, but for the purposes of this piece, I will focus on my pre-collegiate failures, specifically those that took place between 1990 and 1996.
There was the time when I had been selected to deliver the graduation speech for my 6th Grade Culmination Ceremony. As I ascended the risers to make my way to the podium, I tripped and fell in front of all of my classmates, their family members, my family members and the entire faculty and staff. It was an audience of well over 300 people.
Then there was the time I got a “C” on my report card for my first semester of 7th Grade math. First. “C.” Ever.
I had never gotten anything less than an “A” in elementary school, and without trying might I add. A “C”? It did not compute. I did not realize at the time I had matriculated from my public elementary school nestled in South Los Angeles to my elite private school located much further north, that so much more would be required of me to achieve academically. I would be called to new heights of scholastic rigor. It was a rude awakening.
Then there was the time I failed at friendship. Early on in my 7th Grade year I had clicked with a classmate quite effortlessly. We quickly started to use the label “best friend” in reference to one another. My “best friend” was beautiful and funny and many people wanted to be her friend, but she chose me. I felt special. However, that abruptly changed when another one of her friends convinced her that she was too cool to be friends with the likes of me. After all, I had braces and wore glasses and was chubby, and I couldn’t even go to the mall by myself for goodness sakes! Without discussion or even much contemplation (at least as far as I could tell), I was cut. Demoted from “best friend” to classmate.
And the pinnacle of my secondary school failures was the time I ran for student body president and lost. For my campaign speech, which I had to deliver before the entire student body, I had bravely attempted to rap. I thought my rap was catchy, but my irregular cadence and choppy
delivery demonstrated otherwise. My schoolmates seemed amused by my efforts, but ultimately were not convinced that I was the right person for the job. I lost.
I remember each of these incidents like they were yesterday.
Failing did not feel good in the moment, especially for a person like me who prided herself in being a high achiever and in accomplishing everything she set her mind to. Let’s just be honest: failing hurts. It is humbling and it exposes us for what we are: frail, fallible, imperfect humans.
In my skin as a woman and a person of color, I know that people who share either of these designations with me probably also share my experience of wanting to avoid failure at all costs. We have been told our whole lives that we have to be better, stronger and more prepared than everyone else in order to have a seat at the table. We are told that failure is not an option.
But here’s the thing: if we’re truly living courageously and trying to accomplish the goals for which we are reaching, failure isn’t going anywhere. There will never be a time in our lives when failure is a thing of the past. The idea that we will one day come through all of our struggles and have a life of smooth sailing forevermore is just false.
The reality is that failure is always an option, at least when humans are involved. And if we are so afraid of failing that we won’t even try, then we have defeated ourselves out of the gate. We cannot be so fragile that we can’t take a hit. Who we are and our sense of self cannot be so inextricably tied to our successes that our self-esteem is destroyed and our forward progress is halted the moment we don’t win. It is absolutely imperative that we understand that our value, our worth, and our abilities are in no way diminished if we do not get an “A” on every test, if we don’t win every competition and if we aren’t always at the top. In fact, it’s in those moments when we’re at the bottom when we learn the most.
As for me, what were the outcomes of my secondary school failures?
After I fell in front of everyone at my 6th Grade Culmination, I gathered myself off of the floor, readjusted my dress and tried again. I ascended the steps flawlessly the second time around and took my rightful place at the podium. I delivered my speech perfectly and received raucous applause.
After getting that “C” first semester, I went to talk to my teacher to ask her what I needed to do to improve. She gave me good advice, including recommending that I get a math tutor. Initially, I was embarrassed to get a math tutor; that is until I realized that the overwhelming majority of my classmates had tutors for most subjects. Once I got over my misplaced stigma, I still didn’t think I could have a math tutor because we could not afford one. However, my mother suggested that I ask my father to be my math tutor. He was a math teacher afterall. I took my mother’s advice. The second semester, my math grade was a “B+.”
After being demoted from “best friend” to classmate, I was certainly downcast initially. At 12 years-old, being abandoned by one’s “best friend” felt like the end of the world. In my estimation, I was not cool enough or interesting enough or fun enough to hold the attention of someone who would want to be my friend for the long haul. I was wrong. I went on to develop many friendships over the course of my time in secondary school, but none so special as those with my three best friends which started toward the latter part of 7th Grade and continues today.
And with regard to my failed student body presidential campaign, in the end I was glad. The winner, Ali, a classmate who I respected greatly, and who I considered a friend was much better suited to be the student body president than I was. She had developed relationships with students throughout grades 7 through 12, whereas my relationships were localized more to my class and to schoolmates with whom I shared extracurricular activities. I realized that I was better suited to serve as senior class president and focus on opportunities for and cohesion of our class as we moved into our final year of high school. I ran and I won.
I look back over these early lessons of failure in my life and I think about what would have come of me if I had given up. My failures were actually gifts. I implore you to treat your failures as such.
We may fail sometimes, but we are not failures.