There is only one way to learn the lessons that you really need to know: The hard way.
There is a story that makes the rounds of my family history wherein I, as a young child, told my mother that I didn't need to learn things the hard way. (Like my brother--it was implied.) I could learn from other people's examples. My mother was impressed with my wisdom on such things and unsurprisingly, I started to define myself as being someone who could look at the example of others in order to avoid failure. Now, this was a great strategy for situations where failure involved really negative things like drugs or promiscuity or what have you. It was, however, far too narrow a definition of failure to be really helpful in the long term.
Failure, it turns out, is the foundation of success. Certainly, there are flash in the pan success stories, like the time at the Stampede where I managed to putt a hole in one without ever having picked up a golf club before. But that hole in one--like so many random instances of success--could not be duplicated. I couldn't do it again because I hadn't done it thousands of times. I hadn't taught myself through perseverance and repetition to hit a hole in one. I didn't have the form or the muscle memory to do what was necessary when it mattered. My hole in one was a flash in the pan. A lucky shot. There was no skill; no talent. Just a random occurrence. Those moments of brilliance are more of an argument for divine interference than any skill on the part of the individual who somehow managed in that moment to do something amazing.
My narrow definition of failure has been widening. I used to be terrified of it. I thought I would be judged wanting if I made a mistake. I thought it would be better not to try at all than to try and fail. I thought that if I failed at something the first time I tried it, it meant that I had no natural talent for the activity and should stop attempting it before I embarrassed myself. So, if things didn't come easy, I didn't want to do them. I didn't grasp that working at something (even if I never achieved any kind of excellence in it) was its own reward. It was a mountain conquered. I never conquered math because I didn't want to try and fail. Instead, I defined myself by the things I wasn't. I just wasn't good at math. I wasn't athletic because I didn't like the physical discomfort that came along with exertion. I'm still not good at math--but I could probably apply myself and find that I was better than I thought. I am athletic because I have put in the time. I have put in the effort. I have forced myself to be challenged each day and seen myself improve. I don't want to be defined by what I am not because I am afraid of failure. I don't want to take the easy way--because the easy way sometimes teaches lessons that should never have been learned.
Writing has made failure my companion. Time has made it my friend. Failure is opportunity. Failure is what true skill is built upon. Failure is a part of the constant repetition that teaches you how to succeed. You make the mistakes so that you learn how to avoid them in the future. It refines you. It tests your emotional and psychological fortitude. It breaks you so that you can build yourself up better than you were before. Sure, give yourself a few minutes or hours to feel down about it. But then, persevere. Push through so that you can fail at a higher and higher levels. Define yourself as one who perseveres through difficulty.
Learn the hard way so that you really learn; so that your victory isn't just a momentary spark.
(I published a previous version of this article earlier this week in which I tried to be measured and composed. Turns out, it did not nearly...
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