Failure wasn’t an option for me when I was in high school. To be honest, I have no idea where this pressure came from, only that it was self-imposed. My parents are super accepting and patient. My teachers were encouraging. But something about the prospect of not getting a 5 on my AP US History exam was enough to make me develop a hand-twitch as a sophomore in high school (1).
A lot has happened since then, and I’ve changed along the way. It may have been SoCal vibes sweeping through my windows disguised as the Santa Ana winds, or maybe it has to do with my time studying mindfulness, but I’ve lately come to accept that I will not always be where I want to be by the time I want to be there.
One day on Koh Phanang, a crew decided to go to pay a visit to a local waterfall. You park off to the side of the road, go down a set of stairs, frolic for a few minutes, and then turn back the way you came.
Now, on this day, Bobby was our fearless leader, showing around a group of backpackers and his awesome girlfriend Mami.
Bobby, in a nutshell, is all about self-improvement, so instead of turning this group of a dozen backpackers around to hop back up the stairs, he decided to be a competitive little shit and push us to all climb our ways to the top, out through a steep forest brush with no discernible trail (2).
He led the way up, shouting annoying “motivational” phrases, while Mami smiled and yelled at Bobby when he would warn me not to slip and fall into the water. (Helping or hurting Bobby?) The two of them together verbally pushed and pulled me in equal words of support, taunting, and faith .
When Bobby started doubting I could make it up--”Do I need to come help you?”--Mami would cheer me on. And Bobby knows me well enough to let me struggle through despite his ironically motivational jabs.
Because I wanted to do it alone.
Because amongst the three of us, there was enough faith to let me try.
Not gonna lie--I wasn’t great at this. It took a lot of scraping, hesitating, and butt scootching. I tried four different routes before I was finally able to pull myself up out of the bushes, back on the main road. Poked one branch--no way that one would support my weight. Another rock was too steep for me to get leverage to heave myself over. If I tried to pull on that piece of brush, it was gonna uproot and send me flying backwards.
I only know this because I tried them all.
I only know this because I didn’t turn back around and decide to exit through the stairs.
I only know because I failed.
In recent years, I’ve learned to try more often than I turn back. Sometimes the latter is inevitable, but only after I’ve exhausted every possibility. I let myself be terrible before I can be any good, because failure is progress I’m learning to embrace.
I eventually found a way to climb on to one rock, take a leap of faith to jump on another, climb onto a flatter one above that, and pull myself up through a less steep patch of bushes without falling back down (3).
When I got to the top, Bobby gave me an approving nod. Mami clapped. I was bright red, blood rushing through my cheeks, but I was pleased nonetheless. I made it.
That day, I proclaimed, “I'll always get where I'm going--I just might be the last one to get there.” And Bobby started cracking up (4).
I’m not saying I love when things don’t turn out, but like Thomas Edison said, every time I fail, I succeed in finding a new way that won't work. By persisting at the things important to you--even when you think you look foolish--failure has already become success.
1. It went away in a week, and hasn’t returned since.
2. In less of a nutshell, he played football for the Oregon Ducks, and he majored in Philosophy. When he and I got the chicken pox last year landing us in quarantine for 5 days straight, we watched Hayao Miyazaki films and argued about work-out routines. He is one of most annoying, supportive people I’ve ever met. His girlfriend Mami works with young kids in Japan, and she and I bonded over our youthful love of anime. Even in our stilted English-to-Japanese conversations, she built me up and made me feel confident and accepted. The two of them together inspire me, which made their support valuable in learning to support myself.
3. Although the bushes proved equally treacherous, as I was pulling pokies off my pants for days.
4. Fuck you, Bobby. “Is that a Fat Joke?”