Failure is a Liar

I recalled a distant but not entirely forgotten memory while running the other day. It dates back to my first ever homework assignment during my first week of 1st grade, which was a writing assignment.  Unlike much of the rest of my scholastic life, I was beyond thrilled to have homework. I eagerly waited for my parents to get home from work and then demanded they stop their familial duties to help me with it. What I produced, with them helping over my shoulder, was surely a masterpiece. I can see myself sprinting to the school bus the next morning and bouncing into class to hand in my assignment. I could not have been more positive or excited.

The next day our 1st grade teacher returned our assignments. One by one she did and waited for mine, the last one, calling me up to the front of the class. I’ll spare much of the drama, but here is the gist what came next: With me standing in front of the class she showed my homework (and me) as an example of very sloppy work. Of what NOT to ever do. As an example of failure.

I’m not sure what impact that moment has had on me. I had not thought of the experience in at least 20 years, maybe many more. But I don’t have many memories of 1st grade – in fact the only other I can think of is some story about a kid that lived in a giant peach – and that homework memory is still crystal clear — not so much the imagery, but the emotions. I can nearly choke myself up writing about it.

I’ve learned a few things since that day, and there are two that come to the front of my mind when I look back at this experience. The first, and it took me until I was about 40 to really understand this, is that the actions of others toward us are almost always a reflection of what is going on with them versus anything you have done. I couldn’t possibly understand this at six years old, but I now highly suspect there was a reason that I was pulled to the front of the class – and that it had very little to do with my homework. When you smile at someone and they don’t smile back, say hello and they snarl, get lectured for seemingly no reason, etc. ad infinitum, it almost never is about you. If you don’t know that, I hope you figure it out well before you turn 40. Life gets much more forgiving when you do realize this.

Even more importantly, never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. That you won’t amount to much. That your dreams and aspirations are out of reach. We hear this so much I worry we sometimes lose appreciation for what it really means to be told “you can’t do something well,” and that almost gives others permission to say it, as in “surely they will get over it.” It can be emotionally devastating at the time. But here rests another truth of life. Every single one of us can do many things incredibly well. The picture at the top of this blog is of the trail I was running. I have no idea if being told I was bad at something that I was so excited about having accomplished has motivated me as an adult. But I do know that to this day I am incredibly competitive (my business partner woke up at 4 AM the other week, so the next day I got up at 3:30 AM). And I know that when someone tells me I can’t do something, I go and do it — which is one of the reasons I became a runner. I was also incredibly slow when I was in elementary school. Every year I came in second to last place in the coveted last event of “field day,” running. But I have gone on to run hundreds of races, to place at the top for a few of them, and even to set a record once.

So I will say it one more time even though you have heard it before. Few things we set our minds to are impossible. Never let anyone tell you are a failure at something. And if they do, just go do it. Which is why, fourty years later, I gave myself a writing assignment this morning