Failing Inspirationally

a day where dreams are made and broken

Dear Seafarer,

I’m coming back shame-faced to my blog because I’ve fallen off my writing goals, yet again. But in a strange irony, I suppose it would be a fitting way to kickstart the topic of the week, which concerns- failure.

Before we move on, let’s do a short quiz. Does any of the following describe you?

a. God

b. suffering from illusions of grandeur

c. Tom Hiddleston

If none of the above applies to you, then chances are you have failed at some point in your life.

Failure is not a foreign concept to anyone of us. We all know what it feels like. At its most clinical definition, it’s the act of falling short of your goals or expectations. You say, “I’ve failed”, when you’ve lost something. It is almost always thought of in a negative sense, and mostly involves the absence of something we value.

Lost a race, got rejected, flopped a job interview, got a poor grade in a test, flunked out of school, raised a kid you cannot stand, ate one cheeseburger too many- you get the picture.

We are all constantly struggling. However, why is it that we are ashamed of failure when it is actually a socially accepted phenomenon? It’s hardly surprising to us when we find out that someone has failed at some point before, and yet, we tiptoe around the fact, treating it like a dirty little secret.

I believe the answer can be traced back to a universal fear of rejection. We are socially conditioned to recognize value, and to reject anomalies, within others and ourselves. Society functions by a merit system, in which the more you achieve, the higher your value. Value is almost always associated with the presence of something; a skill we attain, admissions into elite schools, a high status career, how much we’ve earned, a beach body, a big house, etc. None of these would mean much by itself (they are but material markers), but when you attach an underlying implication that our value is the sum of our successes, it gets personal. Our egos are constantly hungry. We need to prove our worth. We need to feel good about ourselves. There is nothing wrong with that. It is only natural to admire and covet success. With success, comes power. With power, comes the leverage to influence the course of our own lives.

Failure is a point of vulnerability, in which we are no longer in control of how we want to present themselves. With vulnerability, you open yourself up to the possibility of being labeled or judged with impressions you would be less than proud to wear.

Stupid. Screw-up. Unreliable. Incompetent. Slow. Useless. Lazy. Worthless. Good-for-nothing. Discard-pile. Forgotten. Invisible.  

There is no glory or pride in being caught at our lowest moments. Nobody wants to be seen falling flat on their face. When we stumble as we walk, our first initial reaction is to look around and see if anyone else has seen us. Or sometimes we  pretend to search for the blasted “stone” which is to blame for tripping us (we are perfectly capable of walking, thank you very much).

I myself relate to the fear of being seen as “incompetent”, and many a time it has inhibited me from trying new things. When you think about it, the fear of “incompetence” in itself is irrational; nobody is naturally good at something instantly, unless you are freakishly talented (and if you are that person you are being extremely rude and should go away before all of us crumble in inferiority, I half-kid). There are few things that terrify me more than the thought of being of no value to others, or the depressing idea that I’ll die without ever knowing what it is like to actualize my full potential.

Even within spiritual homes that supposedly preach for acceptance and love, one isn’t immune to the fear of judgment from failure, or more specifically in this context; doubt. I recall a conversation with a friend who had to write a church testimony to be passed around in service, where you inspire others by writing about your journey as a Christian. Testimonies typically end with a heartwarming story about how you’ve grown stronger in your faith, and how you’ve become closer to God.

But what if you haven’t overcome ? What if you’re still struggling? What if you’re still uncertain and unsure? Does it suddenly make you less of a Christian? Do you lose credibility to inspire simply because you’re still struggling? Could you openly struggle as a leader, if you knew that you had the responsibility to inspire and lead others? How do you balance maintaining an expectation, and being honest with yourself?

It appears that every “success” story is inspiring, precisely because it is a story of how failure is overcome. A “success” story creates hope. It tells us that failure exists within a limited time-frame, and that there is no obstacle one cannot overcome. A “success” story suggests that something that must be achieved, for one to extract value from the experience of failure.

There is nothing inherently flawed with the concept of inspiring through achievement. Success is incredibly empowering. If one has overcome a difficult journey, it is certainly a story worth sharing. After all, the most inspirational and powerful success stories come from people who have known struggle, and who have found a way to eclipse it. Such examples teach us to be persistent, to keep going, to never lose hope. Personal triumph is wonderful, and should be acknowledged.

Following that point, how do you inspire others if you yourself haven’t done things that you can be proud of, or if you haven’t ticked off a checklist of tangible awards or breakthroughs that you believe will make an impact? How do you inspire if you’re just, an “average” person? How do you inspire if you’re too young, too inexperienced, not good enough? How do you inspire if you’ve not yet “made it” ?

How do you inspire if you’re broken and struggling, and you feel like you’ve barely got your life together?

Simple. You inspire precisely because you struggle. 

In my view, although I am very much inspired by successful people, I am equally inspired by people who openly struggle, but are going through the grind anyway. I am inspired by people who take that leap towards their goals and dreams, even if it’s very difficult. Even if they constantly fail, or if they haven’t gotten all the answers they need, or even if they suck at something, or even if they look “stupid” doing it.

Even if they aren’t “there” yet, each one of these individuals are incredibly inspirational to me.

I could never laugh at someone who cared for something enough to be vulnerable for it. It’s something I myself fail to do, from time to time. The act of trying itself is inspirational because it sets off a sense of “momentum”, which sets the gears in motion for progression. Most of us are really just too afraid to start. 

Never underestimate how much you can inspire others, just by doing the things that you do. It takes immense courage to try. It takes immense courage to fail, and consequently, to admit that you have failed. It takes immense courage to put yourself out there. It takes immense courage to “suck” at something. Each time you decide to pick yourself off the ground and try again, you are igniting within you a spark that is perhaps of more value than the end goal itself; your unbreakable human spirit, and the ability to hope. 

Everyone has a story to tell. You are not invalidated just because you haven’t “achieved”. And if you keep at it, you’re almost there anyway. It’s only a matter of time.

I end this post with a quote;

Success is not measured by what you accomplish, but by the opposition you have encountered, and the courage with which you have maintained the struggle against overwhelming odds.

Take care, and my love is with you always.