Friday, May 22, 2020

Permission to Fail: Granted

I fail to recall what the article was even about, but I still remember the way I inwardly cringed. As I read about one young adult's professional accomplishments, and about the definitive way that we can all achieve these goals, I was struck by how familiar the tone was. This looks a lot like something I would write, I thought. Not the same content, necessarily, but the polished, overly-confident, "I'm not even thirty yet but I've figured everything out and I'm succeeding at life" voice struck too close to home for my comfort. It's good to present ourselves well, to be professional, and to be coherent. Yet, there's this trend I've been noticing in myself and in other young adults: an inclination to avoid any semblance of failure--until we've hit the stride of professional success. 

Those "I graduated from college a year ago and TRUST ME, my life was a mess for a month, but then, my Tweet went viral and now I have a huge social media following and a hit podcast and a forthcoming book" stories have grown wearisome for me. I value and appreciate these people (often fellow Millennials) and I think it is wonderful that they are creating and sharing exciting work in the world. However, the tendency to always polish up our lives and stories, and to immediately put a rosy glow of success on anything that slightly resembles a failure, is creating a rather unfortunate cultural climate. 

There's the pressure--both external and internal--to constantly create and market content. There's also the habit of using words and phrases to make ourselves appear in the very best light possible all the time. The inundation of rosy images and "success stories" splashed all over social media can be nice and inspiring, but-combined with all the pressures to succeed-it can create an atmosphere that does not allow for failure. 

We'll openly share about our failures-but only once we've achieved tangible (and tweetable) positive results. 

We'll openly share about our shortcomings and struggles-but only once we're rolling in loads of fame and fortune. 

Yes, it's important to be professional. Yes, we need to polish our content. Yes, there's benefit to "speaking from our scars, and not our open wounds" as we ensure valuable (and necessary) privacy during a period of healing. 

But...when we shove any admittance of failure far into the recesses of our lives, when we only look to the "success stories," when we only speak about our work in shining terms, we can forget that it's okay to fail. Not only that, but we neglect to remind other people-through our words and examples-that they have permission to fail, too. 

Recently, as I was reading The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed, by Jessica Lahey, I was struck by the idea that parents need to let their children see them fail. When parents fail-and allow their children to see it-they remind themselves (and their children) that they are not perfect, and that it's okay for them to fail. Their failure also gives their children permission to fail. Having the permission to fail, the children can then create, explore, and dive into life with wonder, since they aren't preoccupied in only doing the activities at which they'll immediately succeed. As I combed through this book, I began to think about how this idea shouldn't just be discussed in the context of family life, but also in regard to other adults in our communities. 

What would happen if we gave ourselves permission to fail-and talked about it? 
What if, by our example, we gave other adults permission to fail? 
What if we didn't save our stories of failure only for the moment when we've hit our ultimate "success story," and instead shared them now?
What if, when we're struggling in the pit of failure, we let our voice sing out?

Perhaps we'd hear other voices rise up, right along with ours. Perhaps we'd realize that behind the shiny veneer of success, other people are struggling right along with us. Perhaps we'd encourage each other in solidarity. Perhaps, when we see that we're not alone, we'll be empowered to strive for our dreams and not pressure ourselves to succeed immediately. Perhaps, when we see failure as a normal part of life, we'll be able take ourselves less seriously-and others will be able to do the same. 

Several months ago, an idea for a children's picture book came to me. Just for fun, I wrote a story, and after working through a dozen or so drafts, thought, why not send this out? After a week spent obsessively researching literary agents and the children's book industry (in which I realized that querying an agent is probably very similar to online dating), I went for it. I queried several agents, not expecting any replies. And you know what? I only got one reply-and it was a rejection. But, it was a personal e-mail, from a respected literary agent. I was thrilled! I don't have a strong desire to jump into the picture book arena, and I'm fine with that. I had mostly sent queries on a whim. I had given myself permission to fail prior to sending out that story, so when it was rejected, I wasn't torn up about it. I felt happy-especially since an actual agent responded! My "failure" seemed like a success to me. I had not let some fear or misconception about not being "good enough" hold me back from trying this out. What's even better is that a couple of months later, I shared about this foray into picture books with a couple of close friends. Instead of oozing with sentiments of reassurance and disbelief, they took it all in stride. It wasn't a huge deal to them that my work had been rejected-it was just a normal part of the creative life, and not worth getting torn up about. 

I find myself thinking about this experience as I type away on my current project. For well over a year, I've slowly been working through a book idea. It's a project that I feel passionate about, one that I just can't seem to discard or forget about. I could sit at home, adorned in my Batman bathrobe and huddled under my laptop while refusing to send my creative work anywhere. That's the "safe" option, the option that involves no risk of being rejected, of being a "failure." But, I've found that my heart and soul are not at peace with this option. I've given myself a deadline, I've given myself permission to fail, and I've built up a stockpile of engaging library books to keep my thoughts occupied (and console my heart when that rejection slip does come my way). In the near future, with a tad bit of fear and trembling in my heart, I'll send out my book proposal-why not send it out? 
We all have goals that we want to reach for, but so often, the fear of failure holds us back. Give yourself permission to fail, and you may be surprised at the freedom you experience in finally reaching for those dreams. Not only that, but when you allow yourself to try and fail, other people can be encouraged to do the same. As more and more people enthusiastically try new projects, stretch themselves, fail, and grow, we may even create a culture where failure isn't just accepted, but it's normal. 


  1. It's so awesome and inspiring that you continue to make time for your passions in addition to being a wife and mother of little ones! I am impressed. :) I think, in this age of social media, it's all too easy to gloss over the tough realities of life and skip the hard stuff.. but this post is encouraging and a reminder that failure is a huge part of being human, and not something we should dismiss.

    1. Thanks, Elisabeth! I'm so glad you found this encouraging.
      On the "making time for passions" thing-have you read (or listened to) anything by Jennifer Fulwiler? She has definitely been a huge inspiration for me in realizing that it is OK (and good!) to make time to pursue passions while parenting young children.

    2. Noo, but I've heard about her. Thanks for the recommendation!! :)

  2. The point that we only share our failures after we achieve success is so true these days in social media and self help books!!! Drives me crazy!

    1. Yes! I think it's sad that this can lead us to think that our stories are worth sharing only when that success happens-which can then lead us to even deeper dissatisfaction in a time of failure. It's an unfortunate cycle.

  3. The Gift of Failure is such a good book, I need to go back and reread it. Yes, yes, yes. It’s so much better to try and fail rather than not try at all. There’s something to be said for really going for it and failing spectacularly! My main takeaway from that book was two fold. 1) The things I’ve really learned and grown from weren’t my successes. 2) As a parent, we need to be talking about failure on a regular basis. I want to add that question, “how did you fail this week?” To our Sunday night meetings.

    I’m excited about your book! I don’t wish you failure, but I know with each one you will learn from it and get stronger. Way to go!

    1. Thank you for recommending that book to me! There was so much valuable insight in there, and its one of those books that I think everyone could really benefit from, not just parents. I love your idea of adding a question about failure to your Sunday night meetings! It really is a great way to grow.

      Thank you so much! I have no idea if my book aspirations will ever go anywhere (incidentally, right around the time I planned to send in a proposal, I was able to attend a webinar all about publishing in the Catholic world was kind of terrifying! But I decided to keep on pursuing that anyway). But, like you said, it's all a great learning and growing experience. I'm interested to see where God takes all this as I fail, learn, and hopefully become wiser as the years go by :)

  4. Such an important point here, AnneMarie. I'm proud of you for dipping your toes in the publishing industry! More than a few well-known authors received a whole lot of rejection before being accepted, so you're in good company. Being on the other side of it, I would be happy to talk about the industry with you at some point if you want! It has been a crash course in something I knew nothing about before accepting my job, holy cow. I don't consider myself a perfectionist, but this made me think about how I've hesitated at times - I wanted to open an Etsy shop for a while, but was overwhelmed by the details and having everything 'right' first. Someday I am going to do it imperfectly and risk failure!