I have to think of a story of a time I was a failure,” I said to my family at dinner after reciting the perfunctory prayer and filling our plates with Saturday night pizza.
“I can’t think of anything,” I added, laughing. It was clearly not for any lack of material. “Can you think of a time you failed?”
Sheri thought about it. “I got an F in Old Testament in college. Or maybe it was a D. It felt like an F.”
“Oh, me too!” I said. “Old Testament was crazy hard.”
“I once got a B,” 12-year-old Ellie said. “I think it was in science. Mrs. Sutton’s class in fifth grade. I totally deserved it but I was devastated.”
“Really?” I asked. I hadn’t realized she’d taken it so hard.
“I only ever got A’s, until that,” she explained.
Though we live together day after day, I forget how little we really know about each other. Do I fail to ask enough and truly listen?
And then, an idea came about embracing my inadequacy. It seemed it could revolutionize the way I live and approach my work day to day….
If I were to open the floodgates and start sharing all the times and ways I’ve failed to live up to what I could be, the selfless me who often takes a back seat, I’d have plenty of interesting stories to share. All the places I’ve failed, and it would set an example for sharing.
We all love inadequacy stories. And we have so many of them!
If we’d just accept them, wouldn’t we connect more? Isn’t that what relating is—the place you can relate your stories of your fully-lacking self to relate to someone else?
It’s a big question, and it takes me a few days to consider the implications and whether I can do it authentically or if it would feel too forced. These relational experiments are strange but they feel good, right, purposeful.
And basically, I already know I can’t help wanting to be better than I am. So maybe this is a way I can at least get some good mileage out of my failures.
We all sense the importance of this, the vulnerability Brene Brown and others talk about—so why aren’t we more honest about our shortcomings? Why don’t we shed our inhibitions and share what we’re bad at, where we struggle and even our discomfort over appearing inept?
Of course, we know why. Because of judgment. We’ve been hurt and wounded so often, and some folks relentlessly. That shaming has formed us to a large extent and many others, and it’s not good enough to say “just get over it” and move on. Some people are more resilient by nature and determined to press on, while others take the embarrassment in and dwell on it, forcing us to care what others think before considering our own freedom. It’s a pernicious, ubiquitous bully, and it’s made us all in some way hide our feelings and true personalities.
We all have a few truly horrific stories of pain and suffering we’ve endured.
And we’re tired of feeling bad all the time.
To really let that all go and embrace our inadequacy we’d have to know we wouldn’t be shamed again. Our stories of failure may be our greatest opportunity to connect with each other, but to share them, we’d have to forget what we’ve been shown over and over, to somehow believe it’s not completely foolish to be vulnerable.
And that can sound downright impossible.
I was Ellie’s age when I realized my accusers were as afraid or more so than I was. Not of me, of course, but of others, of failing to win the attention, approval and acceptance their attention-starved brains craved. I couldn’t have articulated it like that, but I knew all people are insecure and the ones who tear others down are the most insecure of all.
And what I know now is, failure isn’t what we think it is. The world doesn’t end. In fact, when you fail and embrace it, it can get far better. Failure connects us. And real connection is what everyone wants anyway. Some people just get told they have to protect their proud image and never question the logic of it.
We forget this, but what’s worse, we’ve become trapped by the lie that upholding appearances is the way to feel good and successful in our consumer-driven, happiness-worshiping culture. The supposed “free,” guiltless, nutrition-less, connection-substitutes we consume today—from amusements to shopping centers, to media and theaters, to video games and prepackaged foods, to cheap-thrill hobbies and wish-fulfillment fantasies—the endless parade of addictive modern fripperies has made us forget how dependent and inadequate we are.
Everything is formulated with just the right amount of addictive happy-juice to hook us and keep us coming back for more, and we’ve forgotten what healthy functioning is, what connectedness means, that we aren’t the center of our universe and we don’t deserve to never struggle.
Embracing failure can ironically become our new “guilty pleasure.”
We long for freedom, to escape the demands of our lives and bury ourselves in the soft creamy center of the incredible sweet things around us. But what if our wish-fulfillment fantasy that led to lasting good feelings was just beyond the challenge of appearing like a failure? If we insist too strongly that we don’t ever want to feel bad, we’ll never find out that embracing our inadequacy and failure can actually bring the freedom and joy we’re longing for (as the hugely-popular new Pixar film “Inside Out” recently made clear).
Every experience of failure is a connection story waiting to be shared.
No we don’t have to be achievers or successful or hold these perfect images together. We just have to give up that substitute happiness and our addiction to the numbing, feel-good drug, face the truth, and see that we’re all vulnerable. And we’re all failures. And that’s a very good thing.
We all have endless connection stories to share. And sharing them can be how we succeed.
Are you struggling with someone who needs this reminder this week? Maybe your best way to remind yourself is to share with them a “connection story.”
And when you try, remember that you never fail without gaining yet another way to succeed.
For the higher purpose,