I fell down — hard — on a run a couple of weeks ago. It was really cold out and really icy, and I took a turn too fast and plummeted spectacularly in the middle of a major intersection, with the occupants of at least two vehicles looking on. This particular fall, as dramatic as it was, still wasn’t as embarrassing as the time I tripped on something in the middle of the sidewalk (an innocuous piece of wood, I think) and crashed down full-length, scraping everything from cheek to ankle, and causing two unassuming onlookers to abandon their morning coffee and rush out of their apartment to see if I was alright.
MAN (with genuine urgency, bless his heart): Are you OK?
ME (feeling my face, possibly in shock): Am I bleeding?
MAN: I don’t think so. I can’t see any blood.
ME: Well, I guess I’m OK, then.
And I got up and hobbled away, much to their consternation, no doubt. I was bleeding, actually, but it worked out alright. It worked out alright this time, too, although I had some impressive bruises to show off for awhile, and my hand still hurts a bit. But what this incident made me think about was the idea of falling in a larger sense, and failing; how we approach these inevitabilities — and hopefully learn from them.
Falling in any sense feels like a failure, doesn’t it? A shortcoming, a missing of the mark, no matter how minor the circumstances. “I fell” is never a triumphant statement, whether uttered by an Olympian or a plebeian stair-tripper, and there is an undeniable stigma attached to any confession of losing one’s poise. But maybe that’s part of the problem. Maybe we need to rethink the whole idea of falling and failing. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all.
With an uncanny sense of timing, a friend shared this article with me shortly after my running mishap. It’s a great read, but if you’re the tl:dr type the takeaway for our purposes is that failure is good for you. Good for writers, especially, because they tend to be the over-achieving types who coasted in their high school English classes and annoyed their teachers by reading ahead (guilty as charged). Although at the time we precocious jerks were rewarded for that behaviour with good marks and pats on the back, it ultimately made us afraid to fail, because we were not used to doing so and we were scared of how it would turn out. Our carefully-crafted identities as “good students” back then makes us still cautious and apprehensive in our adult creative lives, because we hold onto that label and want to keep deserving it. Someone else called this mindset “evaluative concern perfectionism,” and indicated that in the extreme it can lead to depression, anxiety, even suicide.
Ya. Well. OK. Luckily I was really bad at gym class (it’s where my falling down exploits began, probably), so maybe that provided some balance to my childhood experience. I hope so.
Because of course what we perfectionists have to realize — somehow, at some point — is that the only way to learn new things is to be bad at them at first, but to keep trying anyway. To practice, to learn new pathways, and to thereby improve. We need to “fail better,” as the motivational poster says. Failing is a brave act because it exposes our vulnerabilities, which can be an excruciating thing, but one that’s also necessary for growth. The only way to sustain that high school over-achievement (if that’s your bag) is to be literal about it — to overstep your old boundaries and see where that gets you. If you fall down in front of a bunch of people, they might laugh at you, it’s true. But they also might run over to see if you’re OK — because they’ve been there, too.
So go ahead and fail with me, won’t you? I’m going to try to get good at it. And then get better.