On Failure

It is generally helpful to give yourself permission to fuck up. It’ll happen. It is part of learning. We learn, mostly, by making mistakes. By trying out what doesn’t work and adjusting our behaviour away from that. Fearing failure means paralysis.

This is something I have seen an online friend struggling with and, honestly, my heart goes out to him. He complains of never having had a life, about not reaching various adult milestones, and lamenting that he cannot change because he’s afraid of fucking it up. The thing is, the catch: you have to fuck up in order to grow. It’s not optional, because this is how we grow.

This is something, to some extent, I have struggled with myself. I can say without much ego that I am a very intelligent person. I come from a family of successful physicians, and I work in a profession where very little leeway is made for mistakes. When I was young my parents were the kind who expected fast success, and were critical of me when it didn’t come. I learned to learn fast; to make mistakes early and privately, and then manifest (what looks like) effortless success in public, where possible.

This might sound good for me, but it has left me with some blinds spots and deficits. I do lack certain aptitudes, one of them is a strong sense of numeracy. When I enrolled in university I was originally a computer science major, but chickened out of it because mathematics was a required class. I ended up studying psychology instead in order to get away from math, but the sweet irony of it was that I ended up needing a strong mathematical skillset in order to pass statistics. I also, ultimately, got a job in the field of computer science! Things probably would have turned out better for me if I just sucked up my fear of failing at math and struggled with that one math course I needed to take in order to progress in the computer science program.

More proximally, learning the saxophone has been a struggle for me. This mainly has to do with reading musical notation. I absolutely hate the system that has been bodged together that we use to write music. It is confusing and inconsistent, and was primarily created for the writer, not the reader. In picking up the saxophone I was undertaking something I would not be immediately successful at.

Last night at my lessons we were trying out a new activity. Sight reading in real time. It was a deeply unpleasant struggle for me. Even though I have been practising the notes and their position on the staff, I still struggle with perfect recall. The pressure of looking incompetent made things worse, with fed in on itself. My emotions got the better of me and I became upset.

Between practice sessions I have been trying to change my attitude. I have been thinking (and I’m paraphrasing here) to myself, repeatedly:

You are going to fail. You will make mistakes. You’re not good at a lot of the skills needed to play the saxophone. If you want to play, it is going to be a struggle. This will not be easy, nor should you expect it to be. Reaching your goals takes effort, sacrifice, and patience. If you want to know the joys of success, your going to have to put up with these feelings.

I will never be a John Coltrane. He was an exception among exceptions. But if I don’t try (and fail) I will never get to be me.