Thursday, September 29, 2011

Failure: It Can Suck The Life Out Of You

My daughter, who is in fifth grade, came home from school last week and collapsed into a tearful mess – all the self confidence sucked right out of her like air out of a balloon. She had run for Student Council President and had lost.


I listened, my motherly heart breaking, as she sniffed and gulped, the words pouring out of her mouth:

“But, I worked so hard! How could this happen?”

I must have done a really bad job because someone else won.”

I got up in front of all those people and now I feel stupid.”

I tried to pick up the pieces reminding her of one of life’s greatest lessons: that failure, rejection and defeat are a reality for every one of us. I let her know that I ran for class president in 8th grade and didn’t win and that I’ve had countless other setbacks. I told her  it is our duty to grow from these experiences, to use them to our advantage to make us stronger. We cannot let losing or failing paralyze us and make us afraid to try again. This is what builds character and eventually helps us find success.

While listening to her, two things jumped out at me:

1. Just because we work hard at something doesn’t mean it will turn out the way we planned or hoped. Just because we work hard at something does not mean we are guaranteed anything. Yet, that should never stop us from working as hard as we can and giving it 100%. As is often the case with the most meaningful things in life, the journey is the classroom. The journey is the real experience.

How many of us have trained for races only to be struck down by injury only weeks before the big day? We feel cheated. After all, we trained our asses off and made countless sacrifices only to find ourselves as a DNS-er (Did not Start),a DNF-er (Did Not Finish), or God forbid a DFL-er (Dead F&cking last) - something no athlete ever wants to be. We think “What was the point of all that training? What a waste.”

Well, I’m here to tell you it wasn’t wasted effort. The training was a platform for growth. For learning what to do better next time. It served a purpose. And the injury did too. It hopefully ignited a fire in you to recover, to keep moving forward, to never give up.

2. We should never let how we feel about ourselves or our performance be dictated by our ego’s need to compare ourselves with others. Our race is OURS and no one else's. Comparing ourselves does one of two things: makes us feel inappropriately inadequate or makes us feel inappropriately superior. It is natural to compare ourselves to others, but it usually makes us terribly unhappy. So, why do it? There will always be someone faster, smarter, thinner, richer just like there will always be someone slower, dumber, fatter and poorer. Get over it.

I always tell myself that the ONLY thing that matters after I cross the finish line is that I have no regrets about what I did on the course (except for that turd I left at mile four, but whatever). Only I know if I gave it my all and if I didn’t well, I have to live with that and it won’t be pretty.

Sometimes late at night (probably why I can’t sleep), I go through my day and know there were moments as a parent, spouse, friend, athlete, employee that I could have stepped it up and didn’t. It’s a piss poor feeling. I don’t have to be perfect or please everyone or run a 3:30 marathon, but I HAVE to know I lived up to my potential for that day. I want to be better, to do better, to show up as my best self in all ways. We all should.

As the Buddha says, “The only real failure in life is not to be true to the best one knows.”

I know for a fact that Emma was incredibly proud of her posters and the speech that she gave. I know for a fact that she delivered an amazing speech in front of 300 students and teachers in a poised, self confident and kick ass manner because I was there. When she told me she must have done a bad job because she didn’t win, I asked her “But, how did you feel after your speech, before the votes were in? Were you proud of yourself?” She replied, “Yes, it was hard to get up in front of all those people, but I did it.” So, in a sense, she did win.


Do you compare yourself to others and base your self worth on that? Of course I do, but I try to be aware that it is happening and tell myself to “KNOCK IT OFF.” It really does no good. In a race I am competitive with others, and I think the two things are very different. I see competition  as beneficial because it feels like the spirit of the event and a dynamic that makes us push harder. In daily life, however, I am most unhappy when I am seeing how I stack up next to everyone else. And, yes, it is VERY easy to compare in the blog world, so we all have to watch out for that trap.

How has failure/rejection/defeat made you stronger? For me, there are stages. At first, I pull back and don’t want to try again. But, over time I keep telling myself that you need to “Fall down seven times, get up eight.” I try not to take it personally and to learn from it.



  1. Love the DFL-er reference.
    I think it takes a while to figure out what it was all for when we fail at something. Sometimes it takes weeks or even years for it to make sense.
    In the meantime a glass of wine or a piece of cake doesn't hurt.

  2. Great post. I hope my friend Meredith reads this. While I know it is necessary, I am not looking forward to working on this with my children. I am not so good at it myself.

  3. Thanks for a great post! I was having a pity party this week after having a bad race at the IronGirl Duathlon last Sunday. I trained. I hoped. I got injured. I finished but it was not what I had hoped for. Thanks for the reality check:)

  4. So cool that your daughter experienced that. It will be one of those moments you both will remember forever. Prolly part of the reason I am SO loud about the good things that happen in my life is so they can drown out the bad things. And anyway, who wants to be perfect, win everthing and get it right every single time. How boring!

  5. Great lesson here and I KNOW Emma will have learned a lot from it. The sting will wear off and I hope she can find pride in what she accomplished. Not many people have the guts to even try!

  6. I was on the verge of tears knowing that these days lie ahead of me with my little ones. It must be hard to see them with their hearts broken like that.

    When social networks first began to come on strong I constantly checked out the pages of former classmates and compared their, seemingly, glamorous lives to mine. For goodness sake, we were only 5 years out of high school! I'm really happy with where I am right now, thus no longer feel the need to do that stuff.

  7. Wow. Good lessons for us all. There are plenty of adults who couldn't speak to 300 people and wouldn't have tried. All we can do is our true best; the outcome is so often not up to us and/or not directly based on our effort. Something we learn over and over. The instinctive flash comparison and judging is what our monkey minds do-can't stop it but we can be aware and try not to get sucked in. I laugh at myself when I feel a twinge when someone I know gets promoted at work, because I know I don't want that job and it's not really envy, it's just a reflex. Real envy is a guide to figuring out what I want to go after.

  8. Bless Emma’s little heart! I am proud of her for just having the confidence to get out there and run for Student Council President! That takes a lot for a young person to publicly speak!! This kid is going to go places and is off to a great start.

    Funny that you mention how we compare ourselves to others. I was getting caught in that trap last week! It’s not that I am not happy for the achievement of my fellow runners but I start to wonder why I am not as successful as them and I have to catch myself. On the other side of the coin, other blogs motivate me to try harder because I see what they are doing and it’s obvious how their hard work has paid off for them! Thank you for posting that. I feel better now. I thought I was the only one who was doing that!!

  9. you are a fantastic Mom, Emma is a lucky lady!!!

  10. I was a competitive figure skater for 8ish years, and I never won a competition. I very rarely skated my best for different reasons, and I left the sport feeling like a failure. So much so that I can't even watch it on tv. I *hope* that I've learned from it. Every time I want to skip a training run I remind myself how painful all those years of skating were and how I don't want to repeat them. Its one thing to try your best and fail, but its even worse when you know that you could have done more.

  11. I am ultra-competitive but with myself. I expect the world out of myself and get frustrated when I don't perform to my perceived capabilities.

    I have a saying for myself:
    I will only fail once.

    Essentially I know that failure will occur but I know I will work harder the second time around so that I don't fail at it a second time.

  12. I just did a whole post on "mediocrity" and how I (unfortunately) view that as a failure on some level.

    I know its so stupid but it's what I do. I'm a numb nuts sometimes.

  13. What a great post! Your daughter did awesome because she had the courage to try. So few kids seem to even have that anymore, so congrats to her and to you.

    As far as comparison, I have got to be the world's worst at comparing myself to others (especially with running) even though I know that it is not a worthwhile venture. It's such a hard habit to break though.

  14. Don't know whether this computes for a fifth grader, but maybe you'll like it: "Despair is never a solution, it is the ultimate failure. In Tibetan we say, 'If the rope breaks nine times, we must splice it together a tenth time.' Even if we ultimately do fail, at least we will have no feelings of regret. And when we combine this insight with a clear appreciation of our potential to benefit others, we can begin to restore our hope and confidence."--Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the wise guys of the 20th century

  15. Emma's awesome!!! Doesn't she realize how much courage it takes to do her best in front of her peers?! How many times do we do something half heartedly so we don't have to feel like crap if we fail?

    But she didn't do that. She had the sack to throw her... sack out there and do her best. The only reason she lost is because someone *had* to lose.

    It doesn't take any courage to win - Don't get me wrong, winning is AWESOME!!!!! - , but it takes courage to lose and keep going.

    Congratulations to Emma.

  16. Oh geez that had to be hard for Emma but even harder to take as a mom. I know this is coming with my kids...sigh. But you're right, it is a learning, strengthening rite of passage.
    I know you didn't write this for me but it is for me as I sit here not packing for the marathon I'm not running on Sunday. As much as I say I'm at peace with it, the fighter in me is so not.
    Honestly I've gotten very good at not comparing myself to others. Instead I'm guilty of comparing the runner I was a couple of years ago with the one I am now, and working to change what needs to change and trying to accept that which I cannot control.

  17. Thank goodness for good moms to put things in perspective. :)

    I agree wholeheartedly, although sometimes agreeing is easier said than done.

    My biggest failure-turned-triumph: first marriage when I was 21. Crashed and BURNED. (Go figure. How many 21-year-olds make good decisions?) But that's why I started running. And look how far that has taken me!

    I can't imagine what my life would be like if I hadn't failed. I learned more from that failure -- about who I wanted to be, what morals I was not willing to compromise, about what I could bounce back from -- than anything I "succeeded" at. I'm also a much more relaxed and forgiving person now -- that lesson alone was worth all the anguish. (I'm sure my husband now would agree.)

  18. ah yes, comparing myself to others in a negative fashion... I'm all too familiar with that monster.

    That is one thing that I have enjoyed about being in Korea and only having run one race so far... 99% of my running time is just me against my previous runs. I have no option but to just compare myself to me. There are no age groups... just me, which is nice. Of course, I read lots of blogs and sometimes think "I will never be that fast." but here recently, I've started thinking "I can't wait till I am that fast... I just need to stay focused." I use the faster runners to fuel my motivation, rather than to tear down my confidence.

  19. Oh my! I'm going to have my daughter read this today! She's in 8th grade and recently ran/lost for STUCO Pres. While she didn't dissolve into tears, she was pretty disapointed...she only lost by 3 votes! Her poster and t-shirt said "got kennedy?" Too funny! Thanks for the reminders. For all of us, young and "not as young" :)

  20. It might have been nice for Emma to win, but I'll guarantee she learned more from losing. She learned to run a campaign for something she wanted. She got up to speak in front of a crowd of people. She put herself out there to ask for something she wanted. She tried. She learned that working hard is no guarantee of success.

    These are things that will serve her well nearly every day for the rest of her life, painful as it is at the moment. It is FANTASTIC she learned them now.

    Do you want to know what she will learn next? The first time doing anything is always the hardest.

  21. That's why I follow always let it all hang out with yourself and your family.....she will be fine and stronger....

  22. Great teaching moment w/ Emma... In this crazy world of, "Everyone wins -- here's your ribbon." I find it valuable that sometimes there IS a winner and a loser. While it hurts to be the latter, it's a part of life -- and often you learn far more when you come home without the win.

  23. I don't sleep either....probably for the same reasons. Sucks!

    I have never compared myself to others....doesn't mean I'm not a bit envious of other's times, but I only like to compare myself to me. I wrote a post a few weeks ago, which you may not have caught, that I want to stand up on the start line of a race having left no stone unturned and prepared to defend myself. Sometimes, there are obstacles - luck a sucky foot, for instance - which may not put me in the best shape, or the running Gods will provide crappy weather....there is never a guarantee, but all we can do is do our best on the big day. I salute your daughter for giving it her all and though it is hard to watch her suffer, I think these things are valuable lessons in disguise. Big hugs to her (and you)!

  24. I cleaned up my language and no longer use the "f" word except when referring to things like structural failures when bridges collapse, for example. Life's lessons can be hard and the hardest ones do tend to be the ones from which we learn the most. I must admit that sometimes I wish I didn't have to have so much goddamned strength of character though.

    You are an awesome mom, SUAR. Emma is in very good guiding hands :)

  25. Poker players have a saying, right play . .wrong result. That was the first big hurdle I had to get over as a poker player and then as a runner. You make the best decision you can within the confines of the situation.

    Now how in the hell you get a fifth grader to understand that, I have no idea. . . .

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  28. This is so moving and beautiful. You are such a great mother!! I'm sure your daughter will be okay.

  29. Yeah, her life is pretty much over. You may as well just find a "home" for her...

    The reality is she is going to be a better person because of everything she did. And it already sounds like she is on her way to being the best she can be.

  30. Loved it! So true too!
    I've been DFL twice (if not more, LOL!), on my first 10K almost 2 years ago and on a race last August 27th. I did my best. Head up high and keep going.
    Your daughter is very lucky to have such a wonderful mom!
    I keep trying and I always say to myself "my own race at my own pace". No point in comparing although it's difficult... I got my brother into running and without any training he does great. I train and I'm worse everyday, LOL! We just went to London, UK, over the weekend to run a half marathon. His first, my second... guess he's got it in him more than I do but still I DID IT. I managed to cross that finish line and finish 7 minutes faster than my first half (and had to walk the last 3kms too!). I gave it all I had. I had fun and loved it. What's wrong in that?
    Great post! TFS!

  31. Awwww....My fifth grader just got the news he didnt win for student council also. So sad but we had a "Nice try for sticking your neck out Party" He loved it and we told him we were so proud of him to work so hard at something even though it didnt turn out the way he wanted.

  32. Great post. Bless her heart - she did what so many of us would never have the nerve to do. And while I'm so sorry she lost, she did experience and learn how to deal with failure. It will make her a better person. Too many kids these days don't experience that - they win award for everything and never worked hard for it. You're raising a great kid there. Both of you should be very proud. I'm sure you're glad you've "got Emma." :)

  33. THANK YOU! I needed to hear this - awesome post! I can imagine my mother telling me similar things when I was a child, and that is a memory I am thankful for. I'm sure you know, but Emma is really lucky to have you as her mother!!

    I, unfortunately, do base my self-worth (a lot of the time) on my comparison with other people. Running, though, has begun to change this for me, and I am learning to like myself for who I am. I struggle with body-image issues and in running, I can feel strong and athletic, but not feel like I HAVE to be skinny, like, right NOW.

    Thank you for posting this today.

  34. I read this before I left for my first 5k trail run this morning. I used it! I ended up finishing 3rd in my age group and I knew I did my best. Thanks so much!!

  35. Sweet Emma!!! It's hard. I ran for prez in 8th grade and lost. I understand!

    Great post.

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