No one ever talked about realizing my failures when I was a kid. I grew up thinking that you should avoid taking missteps and exposing your deficits at all costs. The willingness to make mistakes, the ability to suspend judgment, and the courage to not know the answer were not considered skills, and they were certainly not valued or rewarded. I am hopeful, though, that attitudes toward failure, ignorance, and success may be shifting.
Recently, my four year-old niece amazed and delighted me when she seemed entirely unsurprised as I read her a story about embracing failures. The premise of Rosie Revere Engineer by Andrea Beatty is that discovery and innovation can only happen through many trials and even more errors. Rosie cannot become a successful engineer until she accepts that her “first flops are something to celebrate.” That idea makes sense, but unlike my niece—who seems to understand that working hard and messing up over and over again are a normal part of exploring, learning, and accomplishing new things—my aversion to failure is fairly ingrained.
I didn’t realize that creativity, experimentation, and invention depended on the ability to cultivate imperfection and acknowledge faults. Now, I can see that my preconceived notions about intelligence and success were not only shortsighted and maladaptive, they were just plain wrong. Yet, my heart doesn’t always allow those thoughts to permeate and settle down.
Truthfully, I am afraid of obvious and complete failure. I don’t have enough courage to openly founder on a regular basis. I worry about how people will judge me and, probably more realistically, how I will judge myself. My visible failures and conspicuous ignorance regularly diminish my self-esteem.
But that is not the greatest consequence of my illogical views about aptitude, competence, and failure. When I judge myself harshly and unfairly based on arbitrary and unrealistic standards, that reasoning has a way of bleeding into my assessment of everyone. I wish I could say that I never use superficial measures to make snap judgments about people, but I can’t. And that’s the most shameful aspect in all of this.
My parents were intellectually elitist, and my father was a profound snob when it came to language and literature. His propensity to judge himself superior in all things literary while finding others wanting both intimidated and embarrassed me. Of course, my upbringing does not excuse my judgmental impulses, but it may help explain them.
My father spoke with this vaguely English accent that wasn’t entirely fake but was exaggerated when he was showing off. For example, you could often hear the change in his voice when he used esoteric words. I think he would say that he chose those words because they denoted precisely what he wanted to convey. Except he was never concerned when his audience could not comprehend his perfect words. Not only did it not bother him when most people needed to use a dictionary just to translate one of his personal letters; he actually prided himself on his ability to induce this problem.
I can remember my fear of writing Christmas thank-you notes to my father’s family when I was younger. I have messy handwriting; I am a bad speller; and I struggle with punctuation. So when I wrote my short, pedestrian, and not-at-all-astute letters, I often thought about how incompetent I was in contrast to my father and how embarrassed he would be if he ever saw my letters.
Although I was always daunted by my father’s view of his own intellectual prowess, I eventually began to see how judgmental he was. Soon, I started to feel embarrassed about his prejudices and his tendency to venerate them.
I will never forget my utter humiliation when one of my friends brought her unsuspecting boyfriend to my father’s house for dinner. Almost as soon as they arrived, my father sat the poor guy down and began to ask (but really interrogate) him about his understanding of the differences between the words “insure,” “ensure,” and “assure.” To me, it felt like some kind of freak-show parlor game that my father trotted out in an attempt to simultaneously impress and humble his juvenile guests. My friends smiled politely and sat there quietly while my father performed, opining on all the ways people incorrectly interchange those words. I, on the other hand, cowered as I tried to fade into the background, hoping it would all end soon.
I am guessing that when most people use those “s-u-r-e”-words, they don’t worry about failure or judgment. Even so, I will probably always think of my father’s unfounded prejudice whenever I consider those words. That said, while I may be able to blame my father for making me self-conscious about language use, he is not responsible for how I interpret and reevaluate my own small-minded and biased thoughts. Perhaps, I should be grateful that I have vivid memories of my father brazenly criticizing others for making mistakes as inconsequential as the misuse of a single word. Those memories remind me to correct myself when I find that I am drawing conclusions about people based on trivial errors.
At some level, I sensed early on that my father was missing an important piece in understanding people and their abilities. Still, it took me a while to realize that he was actually the one who was unsophisticated and ignorant about mental acuity. Now, when I think about my father’s habit of judging intelligence and failures based on petty measures, I notice the irony. In those situations, it was not the people making grammatical errors or misusing words who were failing; the failure was my father’s. He was not wise enough to acknowledge his own limitations and ignorance. I think he may have been even more afraid to fail than I am.
As I write this post today, I realize that my feelings about failure and success have shifted over time. I have come to believe that some of the smartest people of all are those who readily risk failure, unabashedly admit their ignorance, and consistently refuse to judge others arbitrarily. I hope if I keep working at it, my attitudes and behaviors will continue evolving.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that I would not have started this blog if I had thought there was any chance that my father would see it. (He died eleven years ago, so I considered myself safe on that front.) Nevertheless, I have been writing, failing, and learning in front of an audience for almost three months now. If my father were still alive he would probably find hundreds of ways to criticize my writing. Even without him, though, I know there are still many scornful people out there like him. And yet, I keep posting. This suggests that I have become at least a little less afraid of exposing my ignorance.
I may never learn to “celebrate” my failures, but I am more motivated than ever to try to change my thinking on the subject. I now know that when I berate myself for my missteps and flaws, I am strengthening rather than weakening my baseless and irrational prejudices. If I want to alter and eradicate unfair biases, then I have to be willing to tolerate everyone’s mistakes, including my own.