Let’s Talk About the F Word

by Bulldog Drummond

This month we’re challenging you to appreciate every step in life, so we feel it’s important to actually talk about every step. It’s easy to appreciate the good stuff, the stuff our culture views as positive, but it’s much harder to appreciate the painful and challenging things life throws our way.

We’ve featured a series of commencement speeches that do an especially good job of providing uncommon sense wisdom to help us appreciate the difficult parts of life. David Foster Wallace reminded us that in moments of boredom or frustration, we have the power to choose how to see our situation. Joss Whedon encouraged us to embrace the contradictions in ourselves and others, and to sit with the tension. Our third feature comes from JK Rowling and speaks to The Fringe Benefits of Failure.

Failure: the other F word.

From the time we are children, we’re sent the message that failure is shameful and that we must avoid it at all costs. As we get older, we either develop or internalize a personal vision of success. As Rowling points out, the world is eager to tell us what constitutes both success and failure. But no matter what definitions we choose to hold, we will all inevitably fail at some points in our lives.

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.”

Rowling is an incredibly successful woman who has also known profound failure. What is so beautiful about the way she discusses both is that she romanticizes neither. Though she focuses on the benefits of failing, she also emphasizes that there is no way to avoid the pain that accompanies it. Appreciating every step does not mean pretending that we can avoid pain.

We learn more valuable lessons in failure than we do in success.

Failure hurts. But if we want to rise back up, we have to learn and grow from it. Failure forces us to change because there is no alternative. Though it feels good when things are going well, we don’t grow as much because there is nothing pushing us. Rowling says, “Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

Success offers a fragile sense of stability. Failure offers enduring confidence.

It sounds odd to suggest that failure, rather than success, brings us confidence. But if we have never had to rise from a fall, how can we know that we have the strength to get back up? Without failing, our sense of stability remains dependent on constant success. Rowling reminds us that, “the knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

Confidence is painfully won. In the midst of profound failure, it’s difficult to appreciate the situation because no matter how many times we fail, it will continue to hurt. But if we rest in the knowledge that we will emerge stronger, wiser, and more confident in ourselves and our relationships, we can make it through with a sense of hope rather than shame. And eventually, we may be able to look back on our lives with gratitude for the times we “failed.”

Originally posted on the Bulldog Drummond blog.

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