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Monday, March 4, 2013

Risking failure

Our old house was on a dead-end street, a nice long quiet road with trees and kids and people who mostly observed the speed limit. For the longest time, when I drove in and out of our neighborhood, I’d see a teenaged boy practicing skateboard tricks—or rather the same trick—over and over.

He’d do the set-up, launch—and fail miserably.

But he didn’t give up and eventually I saw him nail the move. It didn’t happen overnight. It was a gradual process. Instead of succeeding once in a hundred times, it would be one in ten and then most of the time, he jump and spin and pick up his board. Smile. And practice it again.

And after a while, he’d start on a new skill, a new trick. And fail miserably.

I can’t count the number of times I thought, a girl would never do that.

Not the practicing and the striving, but the public failure. Repeated failure. Where everyone could see them mess up and sprawl all over the pavement or the lawn and look like a dork.

I hadn’t thought about that kid in years, but a recent post brought it crashing back.

Earlier this week, a friend posted about this on Facebook.

Basically Hugo talked about the tragic suicide of a teen, Amanda Todd, following severe harassment after Todd’s decision to ‘sext’ a man who, it turns out, may have been a predator. Allegedly this man tried to blackmail her and released the pictures to her classmates and life took a horrible turn for Ms. Todd. More horribly, she didn’t see a way out.

Unfortunately, Todd’s story has been hijacked and trotted out as a warning to girls about the danger of stepping ‘out of line’ with anything sexual, another ridiculous blame to victim measure. While the article initially focused on sexuality, what is most concerning to me is the way the ‘messing up your life’ message demands perfection from young—and not so young—women, while at the same time forbidding them to experiment or risk failure. As I told Nicole in our Facebook exchange, this is the broader message for me:

[Resilience and the ability to thrive] means focusing on giving them what we've given their brothers for decades: the chance to see failure –- and even humiliation -– as an opportunity rather than as a life-destroying disaster.  

Beyond the business world and the implications there—a whole different post about taking risks and business. There is a terrific Forbes article about female entrepreneurs, who are a too small percentage of that market but a highly successful one, if anyone is interested—I kept thinking about the implications of this message, this demand for instant perfection, on creativity. Whatever the media—visual through paint, photography, glass, fiber; performance in dance or theater; or the written word—taking a chance, risking failure if you will, is inherent in creative works. As much as we try to say, “writing is a business” or “once we finish it’s a product,” the end result of our creative endeavor is still a piece of our soul.

And we offer it up to the world to critique.

If we aren’t “allowed” to take risks, to risk failure, if we have to be “perfect” before we attempt…anything, what does that say about us as a society? If we all have to fall in line and not push creative boundaries, there won’t be urban fantasies or paranormal entities or mysteries that make us think, not just about who did the crime, but what led those characters to make those decisions or any of the other layers we authors craft into our stories to make us think outside the expected. Outside the safe.

And failure to take the creative risk is a loss for all of us.

I don’t want to live in a white bread world, where everything is the same. Where people are afraid to take risks. Are afraid to challenge their deepest fears and embrace their highest dreams.
Instead I applaud everyone who steps outside their comfort zone and offers a piece of their vision. A piece of their heart.




JB Lynn said...

Interesting piece, Cathy.

I often wonder if this fear of failure is a result of the modern age, or if it's been around as long as we have.

Not long ago I did an interview and was asked what piece of advice I'd give to writers and I said: "Fail. Fail spectacularly."

Julie Moffett said...

It was Winston Churchill who said: "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." Personally, that sums it up for me. Good post, Cathy. :)

Wynter Daniels said...

What a thought provoking post - thank you. I think risks are necessary for any sort of forward movement.

Toni Anderson said...

Teens taking risk is an important part of human development and has played a massive part in human evolution. That a young girl paid with her life is awful. Who can forget the magnitude of emotions at that age? I think the urge to stop kids taking risks is a natural one for parents and caring adults, but it isn't necessarily a good one. We shouldn't have to pay for our mistakes with our lives. We all need to figure out how to deal with people in this virtual world--like they are real and standing next to you. Like they could be your best friend. Thought provoking post. Kudos.

Elise Warner said...

Excellent post, Cathy. Risk taking is necessary for all arts. Without taking a chance on failure, we would never achieve success.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Interesting post, Cathy, and I like the quote from Steve Jobs that was in the Jezebel article - something about how failing (getting fired at Apple) took the pressure off so he didn't have to be perfect and could be a beginner again. Love that. A lot of us pressure ourselves to be perfect in every aspect of our lives, but that's insanity, because that's striving for the impossible. Of course, many teens don't understand that yet.

On a personal note, my daughter has perfectionistic tendencies (which I'm not surprised by, given who her mother is - grin), but having dealt with that pressure my whole life, I'm trying to help her balance...repeat things to her that I hope she'll internalize. Messages like "I'm okay" and "mistakes are good - they're a learning tool." I hope it works. :)

Anne Marie Becker said...

Oh, and I should add that I don't believe there's anything wrong with striving for perfection. I wouldn't want to live in a society that praises mediocrity. But understanding limitations and finding silver linings in our struggles/failures is what I think helps us grow and makes us happy.

Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Cathy. :)

Jean Harrington said...

Yes, Cathy, the old "no pain, no gain" motto is alive and well. Without taking a chance, why none of us would ever marry, have a child, or even spring a new recipe on dinner guests.

Seriously, girls have a deeper vulnerability than boys, perhaps, but that does not preclude all risk taking. Your point is very well made. Thank you.

Rita said...

It's also referred to as successfully failing. I believe the most notorious or notable incident was Apollo 13. Things went wrong. Failed. But those failures were overcome. What if everyone had thrown their hands up and said well we made a mistake we’ll never going to space again boo-hoo. What about people who loaded onto tiny ships and sailed across an ocean to a new world order people who got into a wagon to go across the Americas. They sure as heck took a chance. I think of the pressure put on our children to know where they want to go to college what they want to be when they grow up by the time they're in sixth grade is awful. It could be the reason why there is so much rebellion cheese give a kid a chance to grow up to even learn who he is science says that brains aren't fully developed until the age of 24. When I would get upset that my kids made some poor choices and mistakes my husband would remind me what the definition of children is. "Little people who make a lot of mistakes." I don't know what's happened to a society who demands perfection the first time around. Or is it because the bar has been lowered so far that everybody thinks they're perfect the first time around. By the way, I've never been invited to perfect party.

Marcelle Dubé said...

Many successful business people have a few bankruptcies in their past. That's how they learned to be successful. I know a writer who keeps a motto on the wall above her computer that reads: WRITE SCARED.

Good post, Cathy.

Cathy Perkins said...

I love reading through your comments - always such good insights :)

Shirley Wells said...

Great post, Cathy. I love Thomas Edison's thoughts on failure. He said "I haven't failed. I've just found ten thousand ways that won't work." He also said "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is to try just one more time." So true!

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