Sometimes the only way up, is down.
We’re all about living our best life here at Honeycombers. From learning a new life skill (like swimming) to embracing a more sustainable lifestyle, we are always looking for new ways to learn and grow. Which is why, in honor of my fortieth birthday today, I would like to share a little advice. Something that I wish someone had told me when I was starting out in my adult life. So here it goes: It’s okay to fail.
That’s right, I said the f-word: fail.
In this success-obsessed age of helicopter parenting and comparing ourselves to the (faux) perfect lives we see on social media, failure is a dirty word. But here’s the thing, you can’t succeed without first learning how to fail.
You learn a lot when you fail, in fact, more than when you succeed—which so often is the result of some alchemical combination of talent, hard work, luck and timing (in no particular order). But the strength to get up when you fall down, to take the lessons you’ve learned from your failures, and to use that knowledge when you try again—and then to do it over and over again until you reach your goal—that takes grit. And grit you have to earn by taking risks and making mistakes.
Easier said than done, right? So here’s some examples from my own life. From when I have failed, as we all do, and what I learned along the way.
Failing in a relationship
Like a lot of teenagers I had several boyfriends during secondary school, followed by a serious relationship in my last year of school before graduating and going to university. (He’s a great guy and we’re still friends all these years later.) So I felt pretty confident about dating when I started university. I had experienced bad relationships with boyfriends who didn’t treat me well. And I had experienced a wonderful relationship that taught me a lot about love. My mother had married young at 21 years old, so I assumed that I would probably meet my future husband while at university. So far so good, right?
I only had one serious relationship in university and my boyfriend checked all the boxes. He was smart, kind, funny and, for the first time in my romantic life, we had the same religion in common—which, at the time, was one of my requirements for a relationship that could eventually lead to marriage. We dated for three years and, objectively speaking, it should have worked. But it just didn’t. We broke up three times, like clockwork at the end of the school year. And then a couple of months later, when the new school year started, we’d drift back together again.
That last breakup I packed up all my possessions in my car (whatever didn’t fit I left behind, both literally and metaphorically) and made the 22-hour drive back to my hometown by myself. I even quit my job because every fiber in being was shouting LEAVE NOW. To this day, I think physically moving away was the change I needed to break the cycle of a dysfunctional relationship.
Now, it’s completely normal to have relationships that don’t work out. But my failure, in this case, was that I wasn’t honest with myself—or my boyfriend—that this relationship was not good for me.
Failing in my career
You think I would have learned, but I actually made a similar mistake in my career several years later. I was lucky enough to have a really good job, with excellent benefits and salary. Had I stayed the course, I could have climbed the ladder and earned more promotions and responsibilities. Again, it checked all the boxes for what I believed career success should look like. And yet, I was miserable. And worse, I was bored. But I pushed all that deep down inside because I was afraid to make a change. I thought it would be crazy to walk away from what looked like success. Surely the problem was with me, and not the job. If I could just figure out what was wrong with me and fix it, then all would be well.
Like a volcano, all that frustration and dissatisfaction that I pushed way down deep eventually erupted and I ended up walking away from the job, without a plan and totally unprepared.
Looking back years later, I don’t regret walking away from the job. But I do regret that I didn’t do it sooner. And I regret that I let fear control my life.
Failing as a parent
Full disclosure: I fail every day as a parent. As an imperfect human being, parenting another imperfect—but smaller—human being, it’s baked right into the job. Anybody who says otherwise doesn’t know what they are talking about. From sleep-deprived suicidal ideation while struggling with postpartum depression, to losing my temper when I’m stressed from work, every day is a minefield of falling short. The good news, though, is that parenting is a never-ending opportunity to practise radical forgiveness. The only way to get up and do it all over again, day in, day out, is to forgive yourself, your partner, your child, every single day.
Furthermore, if I was perfect all the time I would actually be doing my daughter a disservice. Life is full of failure and I can’t protect her from that, nor should I. But I can set an example for how to fail forward and I can teach her how to be persistent and resilient. I can apologise to her when I lose my temper and ask for her forgiveness, from which she learns how to ask for forgiveness and how offering forgiveness heals both parties’ wounds. I can show her how to learn from her mistakes by discussing my own shortcomings openly with her, instead of hiding them or pretending that they didn’t happen.
Most importantly, I can let her fail. It seems counterintuitive, as letting her fail often feels like I’ve failed as a parent. But, as tempting as it is to view her as an extension of myself, she is her own person. She has to learn how to stand—and run and jump—on her own two feet. Which means I can’t catch her every time she starts to wobble. I’ve got to let her fall down and then, hopefully, learn how to pick herself up and try again. As I’ve learned from my own failures, there’s no better way for her to learn what she needs to know to eventually succeed.
So here’s to 40 years of failures! May I be so lucky to learn and grow from another 40 years of falling down, picking myself up, and trying again.