Walking Out Onto the Ledge: Don’t Be Afraid of Failing

Some of you may be watching the new series on TNT The Alienist.  One of the characters in that show is Theodore Roosevelt. Before the show premiered, I read the book and there’s a bit of background about TR.  Most of us know him from his presidency and his adventures afterwards around the world as an explorer of sorts, but long before he was Mr. President or Mr. Police Commissioner, he was a rather sickly child.  One of the reasons his family and friends believe he was so outgoing and “take-charge” was that he had spent a lot of time as a child fighting to be strong and outgoing.  As a result, there are quite a few inspirational quotes about trying and failing attributed to him.  Most are familiar with the one about “if he fails, at least he fails daring greatly.”  While I like that quote (I think a car manufacturer used it in an ad not too long ago), the quote I like best of his actually appeared on my phone’s app this week: “It is hard to fail but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”  That pretty much says it all.  For some of us, this is what we are counting on: we can’t fail if we don’t try. We’d all feel safer if we had a guarantee that we’d win, or at least not fail, but the only guarantee is that if you never get in the game, you will never winThat means you are a guaranteed loser!

Does that sting a little? Good! It should sting.  Failure and losing should not be attractive or pleasant. They should be the impetus to improvement and trying harder.  One of the lyrics I like so much in Green Day’s “Still Breathing” is the phrase “As I walk out on the ledge, are you scared to death to live?” I think that this is truer for more of us than we want to admit.  Living is hard.  Living takes work.  It’s a lot of skinned knees even at the best of times. I remember watching one of Dr. Nowzaradan’s patients who was only 25 years old but well over 500 lbs crying about “it shouldn’t be this hard to be a person!”  Really? Who guaranteed that it was going to be easy?  How about those people who are homeless?  Did they just miss out on that guarantee? How about those with disabilities or who suffered terrible tragedies in their lives?  Where are their guarantees that life is easy?  We can all cry about how hard it is to live and to be a person too, and I am sure many of us have.  I know I’ve whined about it myself.

But ultimately, that’s what it is: whining, and also looking for an excuse.  People think there is no glory or greatness in being a person, but your life is what you make it.  I know it’s a cliche, but a lot of times things are cliche because they are true! One of the stories from Homer’s Odyssey has to do with Achilles making a choice to live a short but glorious life or to live a long and boring one.  (If you don’t know which one he chose, I can’t help you.)  The point is that our lives are the product of our choices and if you let fear dictate your choices, your life will probably be pretty miserable.

Some of you may read my other blog about my pets (My Four-Legged Family & Me) and one of the dogs I mention a lot is my Yorkie Henry.  Henry was pretty fearless throughout his life.  I used to say “he’s fearless so I’m always scared to death!” He’d think nothing of jumping from my shoulder to the dresser or climbing onto the table or growling at my sister’s 110 lb Husky mix.  He was almost 5 lbs and wasn’t even 12 inches tall, but he was was fearless! He wasn’t foolhardy (he knew I had his back when he growled at Marlow) but he also wasn’t going to let his size dictate who bossed him around.  It might sound a little weird to say that your almost-five-pound dog is your inspiration, but frankly I don’t care.  Henry did a lot of things and went a lot of places that other dogs might not get to do because I knew he could handle it.  I loved taking him to Disneyland and Universal Studios and he went to the mountains and the beach too.  I have to admit, he was a little intimidated by the ocean but hey, I know humans who are intimidated by the ocean.

The point is that living takes work and like most things, it takes practice to get it right, especially if you want to get the most out of your life and health.  Nothing worth doing comes without a price and for most of us that price is failing once in a while.  Success is less about luck and strategy than it is about pure perseverance.  It means not being afraid to get your hands dirty or get egg on your face. If you let the fear of looking foolish get between you and your goal or even just the life you want to have, you have much bigger issues than looking like a fool: you’re missing out on your life.

Living the life you want is a success on its own but success comes through trial and failure and trying again. Try googling “famous failures” and you’ll easily get a couple dozen lists of famous people who screwed up royally at least once in their lives. These are people like Einstein, Spielberg, Rowling, Lincoln, Jobs, Gates and of course, Edison, but the list is endless. When you think of three time Oscar winner Stephen Spielberg, is failure what you think of? Or foolishness or embarrassment? Of course not! You think of classic films like Schindler’s List, ET, or Jaws, but such groundbreaking films would never have been made if Spielberg had let failure and fear stop him.

Failure is why most of us are afraid to try anything new or different. When it comes to making healthy eating choices or working out, in some ways, it’s even more awkward.  Many of us feel like we shouldn’t need “instructions” on how to eat and how to be active, so on top of the idea that we’re already doing it ‘wrong,’ we don’t want to admit that we don’t know how to start doing it ‘right.’ We don’t want to admit that we don’t know what we’re doing and we’re afraid of looking stupid. Take it from someone who’s used to looking stupid- once you get used to it, you realize some important truths: most people don’t care; most people have been right there looking stupid themselves; and most people are willing to help you out.

Most of us won’t have millions of people watching us fail if we blow our diet or bail on our workouts. If we fail to finish our 5k or gain back a few pounds, it’s not going to be a fifty million dollar failure with the world watching us: it’ll just be those we love most in the world. So it’ll just feel like it’s the whole world. I know we all want to make our loved ones proud. We want their love and admiration but seriously if we’re afraid of looking foolish in front of the ones we love the most and who love us the most, what does that say about our relationship? Shouldn’t we feel safest with them? If someone has to bear witness to our most embarrassing screw-ups, shouldn’t it be the ones we know won’t use them to hurt us? Don’t you think they’d be proud of our trying to improve our health and quality of life?

When we’re afraid of failing, afraid of looking foolish or afraid of being wrong, we close ourselves off from the world but also the ones we love. That 25 year old 500-plus patient of Dr. Nowzaradan’s learned something important: it wasn’t fear of disappointing others that was holding her back from living her life, but it was her fear of disappointing herself.  She was the one holding herself back.  That’s what happens when we let fear and failure get in our way: we hold ourselves back from living the life we want to live- not fate, not the Universe or God, and not other people. No one else makes the choices for us- we do and when we choose to hide from the hard things in life, we ultimately choose no life at all.  One of my other favorite quotes in my cubicle is from Don Quixote: “I know who I am and who I may be if I choose.” I know who I am. Who do you choose to be?

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