The risk of failure: does it terrify you?

I drive slow, wear shoes, and look both ways before crossing. I don’t particularly like going on rollercoasters, motorbikes aren’t my thing, and I’ve never been sky diving.

I guess you could say I’m not much of a risk taker… although, for those that know me, that might seem a somewhat enigmatic statement.

I quit my corporate job, travelled to the USA on a one-way flight, played poker professionally for a year, and spent 6 weeks straight in Las Vegas.

The first statements involve risking my life (more accurately my aversion to such things I suppose), although I appreciate it’s difficult to envisage a way in which not wearing shoes is akin to risking your life (trying to navigate a beach littered with used drug syringes?).

The second statements involve situations in which I took risks in my life.

But, wait… what is risk? For something to be “risky” it must be:

full of the possibility of danger, failure, or loss

Danger. Failure. Loss.

A risk involves one of, or a combination of, three things. If you are like me, then you care for two of these things much less than the other.

It’s failure I cannot stand. It’s failure which terrifies me.

As a child, I was taken to theme parks, where I’d ride the rollercoaster, pirate ship and whatever else was going on. These are situations full of the possibility of danger or loss (i.e. rollercoaster malfunction, injury), but not of failure (once I was buckled into the rollercoaster, I wasn’t going to fail to ride the bad boy… I couldn’t possibly fail because someone else was in control of the situation!).

At school, I took exams and was graded on my performance. Expectations were placed upon me by my parents, school teachers, peers. I’d study to ensure I learnt the coursework of my particular paper. Then I’d aim to regurgitate the learned information during the exam. The purpose of this was supposedly to test my knowledge.

I was told failure would be bad. Failure was something to be avoided.

“You don’t want to fail the exam, do you?”

Why not? What the fuck would happen? I highly doubt it’s going to rip a hole in the space-time continuum, creating a life sucking vortex which destroys the planet.

Failure comes about as a result of challenging the status quo. In other words, trying something new.

“A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new.” —Albert Einstein

Consider cockroaches whose entire existence involves living in a cave eating bat shit… Imagine what they’d find if they left the cave to see the world outside…they don’t even understand the sun exists! But, it’s much safer in the dark with all that bat shit to eat. Without trying something new (i.e. leaving the cave), it’s pretty damn hard to fail (they’ll continue to survive on a diet of bat shit and darkness – in other words, they won’t make a mistake).

My Mum once told me that when I was born I cried the way a toddler does when their icecream falls off their cone into the sand. My guess is I cried because I didn’t want to leave the womb; it was warm in there and I got free food, kind of like the bat shit cave I guess… That comfort zone was so fucking comfortable! But if I hadn’t left the womb, where would I be now?

It’s rhetorical… Don’t answer that…

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to teach someone how to try something new. Trying something new, by virtue of it being new to the person who tries it, means a person must do something they’ve never done before. It’s possible to guide, but not to teach.

It follows that failure cannot be taught: it’s something that must be undertaken… you can’t teach someone how bad it hurts to fall flat on your face by falling on your face in front of them. You can set an example, by getting up and laughing it off. However, to truly know the pain, they have to do it themselves; they have to feel the concrete slap their cheeks.

I believe it’s good to encourage failure. I don’t know how we do this, but I think putting on a mask that reads “self-confident” helps nobody, not even the person who wears it – the longer that mask is on, the harder it’s going to be for that person to take it off; in other words, for that person to try something new.

Concrete slapping cheeks is a good thing. That is to say, failure is good. Failure is great in fact. The more I’ve done it, the more I’ve learnt just how powerful a teacher it is. That doesn’t mean I don’t still shit my pants whenever I think about it though…

A flaw in my character is that I’m far too quick to chalk up a positive result in my life to outside influences – for example, “I got lucky”, or “it’s only because of x, y and z”. The inverse is also true. That is to say, failure is almost always my fault and disproportionately so – it’s due to an internal lacking of some sort: “I should’ve known to do things differently”, or “I failed because I’m simply not good enough”.

I like to beat myself up. This self-defeating mindset is clearly not helpful. And I’m working to correct it – to be more compassionate toward myself. That’s my burden to bear.

However, something this mindset has taught me is that I have a duty to others. That duty is to encourage failure. Because that is how we grow. That is how we inch out of the dark cave away from a life subsisting on bat shit.

What I’ve come to realise is extremely unhelpful is someone telling someone who’s failed that they shouldn’t have done the thing they did. This is the “I told you so” mentality… people seem to conveniently forget the fact that hindsight is a pre-requisite to clarity.

Never forget, you were once the quivering mess of failure you see in front of you.

I think we all have this duty to one another. A collective burden to bear if you will. To encourage each other to become the best versions of our selves, by encouraging each other to fail. Whether this be through words of encouragement, or sticking out a hand to help each other up when we fall.

So…what does all this nonsense mean to me?

Well, I left a corporate job to pursue a dream (poker). And I now find myself, right back where I started – in my home country, about to begin working a corporate job. It feels somewhat like failure to have travelled so far, only to end up in the same place – right back in the womb, the bat-shit cave, so to speak!

This is but a physical place though. Fact is, I’ve ventured out of the cave…like, really, truly, out of the fucking cave. In terms of mental strength, I’ve grown beyond what I previously thought possible. This internal growth is not well reflected in the outside world by way of shiny things, but make no mistake, to me it feels infinitely more tangible.

My journey out of the cave has taught me many things, but there is one that stands out above all others: I must keep failing.

I believe writing is where I must now focus my attention; this is where I must set about making sure my cheeks hit the concrete.

I must keep failing on this front by: posting shit to my blog which no one reads, writing a memoir about my journey in the USA which I don’t think I’ll ever publish, writing for hours just to delete everything I’ve written, or to file it away never to see the light of day, joining writing classes only to cancel them a few days before going, embarrassing myself at a writing class one day, writing about this, writing about that, writing, etc, etc, etcetera.

Easier said than done – motivation to fail (to try something new) can be more illusive than the Easter Bunny on Christmas day.

To finish, I’ll leave you with the number one regret of the dying as evidenced by Bronnie Ware, a palliative care nurse, who asked her dying patients what their biggest regrets were of the life they lived:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

I reckon people who are about to die are a pretty good authority on what’s important in life. I like to read this regret in a slightly different way, which may not be 100% accurate, but I don’t think it’s far off:

“I wish I’d had the courage to fail over and over and over again.”

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