On Failing Gracefully

I remember my first day of Ultimate Frisbee practice. There was a lot a catch to be played, running to be done, stretches to be learned, and ideals to be ingrained. On such ideal I still maintain until today, because I’ve found it to be incredibly useful in nearly every situation I’ve thought to use it in.

The ideal is this: in Ultimate Frisbee, you always chase the disc. It doesn’t matter if that thing is 30 feet in the air and cruising way too fast for you to catch and already out of bounds; because of the floaty, finicky properties of a frisbee, there is still a chance that the disc will catch a burst of wind and fly back at you, slow down enough for you to get under it, or maybe you’ll be fast enough to catch it regardless. Whatever the case, you don’t stop just because defeat seems inevitable, and since I started applying that same guideline to all aspects of my life, I’ve learned a lot that I wouldn’t have otherwise, achieved many victories that I would have walked away from, and had a lot of fun that I would have missed out on.

Consider that, with every failure, you grow as a person, and much faster than you would with a success. Winning is easy, compared to losing and learning. It takes humility and grace to be able to look at the broken remnants of your plans on the ground and think “Wow…I sure learned a lot here today. Niiiice!”

Let me share with you a particularly mortifying moment in my personal history.

In college, I started and operated a culture magazine called Stim. I planned the whole thing out with a friend and colleague who I had worked on another magazine with, but after all the planning on ad selling and blood and sweat and tears, she had to pull out before the first issue hit the presses (she worked for a local newspaper, and they threatened to fire her if she took part). Setback and a half! I worked extra hard to get that first issue out, the first ads sold, and to set up and run the celebratory first issue event, Stim One.

Long story short, the first issue had a lukewarm reception, but the Stim One event was a huge success. Hundreds of people showed up, the bands all had a good time (it was a combination concert and fashion show), and we were even able to pay the bands more than we initially thought.

I was on cloud nine. I’m thinking, this is easy. What’s all the fuss about?

Enter Stim Two. The second event for Stim was to be a Rock the Vote event, and even grander than the first. We got permission to set up in the center of downtown. We got the licenses, the paperwork filled out, the right hands greased and the right bands signed up. The school was behind us, and several clubs contributed their time and money and prestige to the project. It was going to be big.

Then on the big day: rain. Lots and lots of rain. Buckets of it falling from the sky. I was mortified.

I rushed into damage control. Months of work had to be undone and redone, and before the voting sign up deadline. I had one week.

I was able to secure a new location; an art gallery all of two blocks from the downtown square that was the original concert location. After a whole lot of negotiations and reallocation of my supporters’ money, the event finally took place. The bands arrived and set up their gear. The doors were opened to the public and the openers tore into their instruments. It was a hell of a show.

And in total, about 8 people were their to enjoy it.

It would be safe to say that I didn’t want to show my face after the Stim Two event. SO many people had put their trust in me, that their money and time would be going to something exciting and productive, and I delivered something pitiful. I wanted to die.

A few days later, I took stock. Sure, I was crazy embarrassed and humbled in all the wrong ways, but I had also learned a LOT about what not to do, how to handle a situation when everything goes wrong, and really how to cope with failure. Great. Big. Failure.

And that’s the real point of all this: most people are so terrified of failure that they don’t even try. If they see a frisbee flying out of bounds, they don’t even think about chasing it. That’s a guaranteed loss! Why even put yourself in that situation?

I’ll tell you why. Because you gain very little from a win, but everything from a loss.

If you are someone who avoids being in losing situations at all costs, or even someone who just ALWAYS wins, try this: go play a game with someone and lose. It can be a board game or basketball or pool (which, in my experience, is very, very easy to lose at). Whatever you like. Just get the experience. I know it sounds very Fight Club, but it really helps to intentionally face that fear and realize that this thing that we are so innately afraid of, this worst-case scenario, is really nothing serious. It’s piddly. A pansy.

Become a graceful and productive loser now and you won’t have any trouble winning when it matters.

10 comments

  1. Nice story on crash-and-burning Stim.
    It’s one thing when you know you’ve failed to yourself, but it’s a lot bigger game when you know you’ve disappointed a whole team of sponsors.

    J. K. Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard addresses the issue of failure in a heart-moving manner. You can check it out on YouTube.

    I guess that in the end every effort builds muscle, regardless of the outcome.

  2. Nice story on crash-and-burning Stim.
    It’s one thing when you know you’ve failed to yourself, but it’s a lot bigger game when you know you’ve disappointed a whole team of sponsors.

    J. K. Rowling’s commencement speech at Harvard addresses the issue of failure in a heart-moving manner. You can check it out on YouTube.

    I guess that in the end every effort builds muscle, regardless of the outcome.

  3. i’m confused by the point of this. at the begining, it seems to be to keep running after the disc no matter what.

    at the end the message is don’t bother because then you get the educational benefit of failure.

    always try hard or revel in the failure?

  4. i’m confused by the point of this. at the begining, it seems to be to keep running after the disc no matter what.

    at the end the message is don’t bother because then you get the educational benefit of failure.

    always try hard or revel in the failure?

  5. @Chris: I’ll have to check out that video. It’s true, that it feels even worse when you’ve got other people depending on you. That also makes the lesson hit home even more solidly, though, so there is SOME benefit to all that initial pain!

    @delia: Sorry for the confusion…essentially what I’m saying is that you should strive and run and jump and do all you can. Play your heart out, because if you can succeed, you’re golden. The trouble is, most people quit before they even know where the disc is going..there’s a chance they can catch it, but they stop because they’re afraid to fail. Being afraid to fail is incredibly common, but silly and harmful, because if you don’t fail you’re 1) not allowing yourself to maybe succeed, and 2) denying yourself the amazing lessons that come from those failures.

  6. @Chris: I’ll have to check out that video. It’s true, that it feels even worse when you’ve got other people depending on you. That also makes the lesson hit home even more solidly, though, so there is SOME benefit to all that initial pain!

    @delia: Sorry for the confusion…essentially what I’m saying is that you should strive and run and jump and do all you can. Play your heart out, because if you can succeed, you’re golden. The trouble is, most people quit before they even know where the disc is going..there’s a chance they can catch it, but they stop because they’re afraid to fail. Being afraid to fail is incredibly common, but silly and harmful, because if you don’t fail you’re 1) not allowing yourself to maybe succeed, and 2) denying yourself the amazing lessons that come from those failures.

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