Columns, Opinion

That’s Right, Sir: It’s hard to fail the right way

In middle school, I spent most of my basketball career sitting on the sidelines. I had almost no coordination and absolutely no interest in “boxing anyone out.” But I sort of preferred the bench. It was certainly less stressful than actually being in the game and being obligated to contribute. No thank you.

I was not a successful basketball player. Sure, I scored the occasional basket and definitely improved over the years, but I was far from impressive. My minimal abilities made me uncomfortable and nervous, but I was never deeply upset when I made a mistake. It was mostly just awkward, and it made me slightly concerned that my teammates would get annoyed.

Basketball wasn’t my passion, so I was fine with not being the best. Frankly, I was fine with not being good at all. It was an interesting experience and a unique opportunity, but I never had dreams of being a star player. So, I happily remained the team bench-warmer.

However, when you care about something, there is a lot more pressure to succeed. It’s a good thing, at its core, that influences us to work hard and accomplish our goals. But it can also make us easily discouraged. One moment of perceived failure brings us crumbling to a halt, questioning our own capability.

It’s easy to admit that you’re bad at basketball, or painting, or math, when it’s of no interest to you. It may not be ideal, but it doesn’t really matter. But it’s different when something is important to you and something you want to — and need to — be good at. In that case, failing might cause you to question your abilities.

One simple mistake can trap us in consuming thoughts. We wonder if we truly deserved the recognition we’ve received in the past, or if we’re really as good as we once thought we were. It’s a weird feeling, different than failing at something you don’t really care about or are typically not good at, and it can make you feel guilty for a perceived lack of effort.

Because when you care about something, you tend to expect perfection. Every piece matters, so we put pressure on ourselves to constantly succeed. But it’s not practical. No one can expect to sing perfectly every performance, get every question right on every quiz or amaze everybody every time. But the problem is, some part of us still expects to do so.

People are usually not forgiving of themselves. They get defeated easily, assuming that one mistake is a sign of overall incompetence. Even though we are told failure is an invaluable experience, it is hard to appreciate when we are still in the midst of its effects. Failing, even just once — and even just a little — is powerfully overwhelming.

But when you first start doing what you love, it’s different: the first day of your major-related class, the first painting you enter into a contest, the first basketball practice. When it’s the beginning of something, no one — including yourself — expects you to be an expert. It may be nerve-wracking or stressful, but there’s less pressure for constant success. This same principle should be applied to everyday situations. There’s no reason to be so hard on ourselves all the time. One failed attempt at something you care about does not mean you’re not good at it. It doesn’t mean you should feel guilty for not working hard enough. You don’t have to — and cannot be — an expert every time.

I was a terrible basketball player. But there’s value in the nonchalant attitude I had as a result. Yes, working hard is crucial to success. But work hard to become better, not to prove perfection. And forgive yourself when you don’t do as well as you thought you would.

We can be both bad at basketball and self-forgiving. I know it’s possible.

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