Nobody likes to fail. Nothing feels as bad as attempting to achieve something great and then falling flat on our faces. Looking stupid doesn’t make us feel good about ourselves, so we often go through life making decisions to avoid being in a position where we could look stupid or fail. But is that what’s best for us?
When most of us line up to do a race or competition of some sort, we approach the line with a carefully calculated plan to help us finish successfully and without fading at the end. We train and race with the goal of not blowing up. It’s a place of fear, because “blowing up” is one of the worst things you’ll hear an athlete say in the endurance community. Katie Ledecky, world record holder and multiple-time Olympic gold medalist swimmer, races with a completely different mindset. When she starts a race, she says she’s “always afraid [she’ll] get to the end and have too much left.” That strategy doesn’t always work. Sometimes it ends very, very badly. But sometimes it works out really well and you find yourself on the top step of the podium listening to your national anthem.
Kenyan runners often train and race the same way. A young 19 year old runner will show up to a track set with Olympians and world record holders. The younger and less-experienced runner will set out to do the workout at the Olympians' pace. He will inevitably "blow up" at some point and have to quit the workout, jogging home with his tail between his legs, so to speak. The next morning he’ll get up, warm up to the track and attempt to do it again. He’ll do that day after day, every morning thinking, “maybe today I’ll run with the best in the world.”
One of my favorite quotes of all time is a famous Theodore Roosevelt quote:
“Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.”
It sounds grandiose to think that way, but how many of us actually LIVE that way? It’s one thing to say we’re going to put ourselves out there and try something new. It’s a totally different thing to mess up and look like a complete dummy.
Our American society is structured in a way that encourages us to build shields around ourselves, to protect ourselves from failures. We want to live in safe homes and have stable jobs with money in the bank. Parents are afraid to let their children fail a little bit and learn from their mistakes. Adults and children are both afraid to try new things because they might not be as good at it as others, whether that be in work, music, sport, or any part of life. I’m not saying that I think we should intentionally set ourselves up to fail or make poor life decisions without weighing the risks and rewards of what we are trying to do. I’m not saying we should set others or ourselves up for failure. It’s one thing to make wise decisions in life, it’s another to avoid making decisions or attempting something new because there is the possibility of it not working out.
Athletes who operate with a mindset like Ledecky or the Kenyan runners give us a glimpse into what it means to view failure differently than everyone else. Just because we fail at something doesn’t mean we ARE a failure, and I think that’s where it’s necessary to shift our mindset. It’s not that we should wake up every morning seeking to do something that will cause us to fail. It’s that we should wake up seeking to be the best we can be, and if we fail along the way, then we simply shrug it off, wake up the next morning and try again.