This is how I learned to ride a bike: My father held the back of my seat and ran alongside me, shouting encouragement in his vowel-breaking Irish brogue, and next I know I’m flying along, impressed that my father – who seemed ancient to me, as all fathers do – was flying along with me. That glorious feeling lasted until I realized his voice was receding into the distance behind me, having let me go fifty feet back.
My point in relating this is that I have first-hand knowledge that riding a bike is not impossible.
Lucy, however, was insistent that it was.
“How am I supposed to ride this thing?” she said, shaking one of the handlebars. “It doesn’t even stand up! You just fall right over!”
“You just have to get going,” I told her.
“But how do you get going if you can’t ride it?”
She had me there.
“I’ll run along behind you, holding the seat. You can feel what it feels like.”
“And you won’t let go?” she asked, eyes narrowing.
“I know you’ll do great!” I exclaimed vaguely.
I did let go, of course. And she did ride for a little bit before realizing I wasn’t there and fell over into the grass.
“You promised!” Lucy called back to me, upset.
“I didn’t promise promise,” I insisted. “You did amazing!”
“I didn’t do amazing! I fell!! That’s not amazing!
I bring all this up to ask you this one specific question:
Have you ever tried to give that speech to your kids about how It’s Okay to Fail?
And if so, has that speech EVER worked?
Because we just finished our orientation for NYU Stern and that motif came up time after time for the MBA students: Don’t Be Afraid to Fail! And they were kind of nodding along but I knew they weren’t going to be okay with failing, any more than Lucy was okay with it. And those are MBA students.
The whole “It’s okay to fail” trope is one of my secret pet peeves. Which is difficult because it is practically a mantra in business school. And it is, to be fair, fundamentally true in business – at least they way that people mean it. I just don’t like hearing it from the tech billionaires at Davos trying to inspire the masses.
I have two problems with the It’s Okay to Fail thing:
The First Problem is that this expression isn’t something that actually works in advance. You can’t tell somebody beforehand and have them mentally prepared to just…fail.
Because why would I ever be okay with creating something that I knew would fail? Every time I try something, I genuinely believe that might the final product.
I don’t try making a birthday cake and think, “Well, I haven’t really tried this before, but it’s okay to fail!”
No – I pour the cake mix into the pan and I am confident in a couple of hours I will be setting a stunningly fabulous cake in front of my child.
But that’s not what happens. This is what happens.
I made this. It is supposed to be a cake.
The whole It is Okay to Fail is only retroactively encouraging, once I’m standing on the podium of the Great British Bake-Off or whatever those shows are called and I’m retelling this inspiring story about how my earlier cakes looked like I made them with my feet so don’t give up because It’s Okay to Fail!
But those inspirational stories you hear up there on stage from that great speaker? They are all success stories! Where are all the inspirational speakers who are still in the middle of failing? I’m waiting on the speaker to get up there at some culinary world showcase and be all like, “For years I tried to make beautiful birthday cakes – years! And you know what? I’m still failing. I never got it right. Check out this cake – you want a bite? Of course you don’t, because it looks like a swamp monster. Okay, well, I guess we should just bring up our next speaker…”
I pretty much gave up on cakes (at least cakes that had any chance of being eaten by anyone other than my kids). I gotta be honest – the failure was getting to me. I give up on things because they can feel impossible, and no amount of It’s okay to fail! will get me past that.
But there are a few things in this world that we don’t give up on. And that’s what makes them special. That’s what makes them our thing.
The thing I refused to give up on was writing.
Writing is my favorite thing to talk about.
Not my writing, which can be frightfully dull for me to talk about, but other people’s writing, which is actually fun to talk about. (I work with high school students on college admission essays, which is hugely entertaining – I get to discover their story and figure out how to help them tell that story instead of telling another one of my dumb story about how much I love Doritos or whatever.)
When I speak to high schools or colleges (or even middle schools) about writing, the thing I always share is This Hard Truth:
The first draft of whatever you write is going to be terrible. You WILL throw it away.
One time a student in a class raised his hand.
“It’s not always terrible,” he insisted. “I only wrote one draft of my last paper and I got an A on it.”
I answered, respectfully: “You got an A on it because your piece of trash was better than everyone else’s piece of trash, and your teacher is grading on a curve. But it was, unfortunately, still trash.”
I quickly assured this student that every first draft I have ever done was also complete trash. It’s a simple inevitability.
And that brings me to my Second Problem with the whole It’s Okay to Fail thing:
I have written millions and millions of words over thousands and thousands of hours and there are thousands of pages in the trash. Draft after draft is part of the process. But THAT IS NOT FAILURE. That is LEARNING HOW TO WRITE.
Failure is giving up on something. And it is okay to give up on stuff. It’s okay to fail. But if you are persisting, then that is the opposite of failing.
Writing is one thing I personally never, ever gave up on. I’m telling these students that if they want to do this writing thing – and I know it can feel impossible – then they have to persist and they have to do it again and again and they have to decide that they are going to do it.
Lucy got back up after she fell off her bike. Not because she heeded my sage words about it being okay to fail, but because this was going to be her thing. She was going to ride that bike, like her brother before her and her father and mother before that. So she didn’t give up, not when she scraped her knee or when she fell in front of the guy walking his dog and was super embarrassed. She persisted. And she did the impossible.
But speaking of actual, red-blooded American failure, here are…
The Top Five Random Things I’ve Failed at:
1. Learning Italian.
In college I took Italian, and I imagined myself vespa’ing through the alleys of San Gimignano shouting to Italian passersby as they raised their espressos at their fellow native Italian. But I failed the first quiz and bailed like a fighter pilot in a flat spin.
2. Growing my own herbs.
The first house we got in Connecticut, I was so going to have a little herb garden. People would come over and I’d be like “Can you just grab me a few sprigs of thyme?” and they’d come back with rosemary and I’d laugh gently and guide them back out to get the proper herb. NONE of that happened. (I don’t even use fresh herbs. Also, I wouldn’t be able tell different herbs apart if they were wearing dog tags. Also, I’m still working on cakes.)
3. Categorizing my inbox.
Every year I make like 20 folders and I put all the emails in there and I’m like “I’m organized!” And then it lasts maybe a day and then I just have these emails in folders that I never open again and can never find again and so my inbox now has literally nineteen thousand emails in it.
4. Become a birder
How hard could that be? My dad knows every bird, he’ll pause when he hears one and then identify it. How many different kinds can there be? Six? I can memorize six stupid bird calls. But every time I hear one I have no idea and Finn asks what kind of bird it is and I’m like “I don’t know, owl?” and he’s like “It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, aren’t owls noctural?” And I’m like “Who’s the birder here??”
5. Eat super spicy food
I actually genuinely thought I could practice this, eating spicy food. My secret dream is to go to an Indian restaurant and say “I’ll have the vindaloo, as hot as you can make it,” and they bring something out and I taste it and throw down my spoon and shout “Hotter!!” until the entire cooking staff is gathered around my table, wide-eyed as I lounge back having consumed an entire plate of the hottest food they have ever served. (I don’t really know what comes next, maybe they cheer or something? When I write it down it doesn’t seem as exciting…)
Anyway, if I can just leave you with some last advice: It’s okay to fail.