Permission to Fail


Brené Brown, one of my favorite advocates for vulnerability, poses the idea of writing ourselves permission slips in her book Braving the Wilderness. I read the book this past fall and at the time was feeling a lot of emotions about something that I thought was straight up stupid to feel emotions about. “You have no right to feel sadness about this. The world is not ending, you are just saying goodbye to something you care about, but it’s really not that big of a deal.” My shame is really good at pulling the rug out from underneath my other emotions. In the midst of my shame I remembered Brené’s suggestion. We often need to explicitly give ourselves the space to experience and feel the things we need to, free of our own judgments, or what we perceive others’ judgments of us to be. I went into my desk and pulled out a piece of paper and wrote, “permission to feel sad about something you cared about,” and I felt a deep sense of freedom in that. Now I keep a notepad on my desk that I plan to fill with permission slips to myself this year. The first one, the prelude to this elongated-permission-slip-turned-blog-post, is “permission to fail.”

I used to really love being on stage. I was a bit of a pageant child when I was still young enough for makeup and hair extensions to be inappropriate, and I remember eating up the spotlight. In middle school it turned into Community Theater and Village Idol competitions and then eventually getting up on stage to perform my own music when I started writing. I was an average performer at best, and I knew it, but I didn’t care. I loved dressing up and being in front of an audience and I worked hard enough at it that I eventually convinced people I wasn’t tone deaf and could deliver a damn funny monologue.

And then someone on YouTube left a nasty comment on a video of me singing sometime in middle school and it felt like a truckload of shame was dumped on my heart. It was the first time I remember letting someone else’s voice speak louder than my desire to be creative on stage. I learned that people have opinions and those opinions can hurt and usher in an abundance of insecurity. In order to avoid shame and insecurity you have to constantly manage people’s opinions and in order to create good opinions you must never fail and in order to never fail you must never risk. Stay quiet, stay hidden, stay small. Get off the stage.

Fast forward to a 25-year-old who lives with a deep sense of creative purpose and a deep fear of failure. One foot in the territory of dream chasing and vulnerability and one foot in the territory of self-protection and risk avoidance. I have opted for hiding myself to preserve the notion that I can relationally and creatively please every single person on the face of the planet. Like the true millennial I am, I chose a word to encompass my year, and the word I chose and have been praying over 2018 is the word “faithful”. I chose this word because it is the poetic version of self-discipline and I want my year to be defined by me intentionally cultivating purpose. A friend brought to my attention the other day that Eugene Peterson defines faithfulness as, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Yes to obedience, yes to discipline, yes to cultivating a faithful attitude—my heart can get behind all these things.

And then the other morning I was reading a story in Luke that involved Jesus making people uncomfortable and while I was jotting down a reminder in my journal that Jesus is utterly unconcerned with my comfort I heard God whisper to me, “this is going to be a year marked by discomfort.” Yeah, no thanks. Discomfort means taking risks and risk means opening myself up to the possibility of failure and I’m good without the shame that comes from failing, so I’ll pass. I am pretty good at being uncomfortable when it comes to physical risk, but I know that’s not what I’m being called into. I’m being called into relational and creative risk—deep and scary heart risk. The risk I have been avoiding since I was old enough to feel the first repercussions of shame.

All week I have been walking around feeling exposed and vulnerable, the promise of an uncomfortable year already looming on the horizon, and I have started thinking about the discomfort of faithfulness. How you cannot have obedience and discipline and trust without exposing yourself to the elements of failure and fallout. You cannot be seen or known without making yourself vulnerable to hurt, and so much of me wants to believe that there has to be a better way to live the lives we’ve been called to, but there just isn’t. To live a full life we must come out of hiding and embrace the adversity we will face when we inevitably find that we cannot please everyone.

I have made failure into a big scary monster to hide from because it doesn’t feel good, but the truth is that failure can’t be avoided. By adamantly avoiding one type of failure we are just signing up for another. I can avoid failure in relationship by never becoming vulnerable to another person, but by definition of never embracing relationship I am failing at it. I can avoid creative failure by never putting myself out there, but I am failing at cultivating and sharing art. I am currently reading The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson and he makes the point that we are all asking the question of what would make us the happiest instead of the truer question of, “what are you willing to endure pain for?” What are the things that are so worthwhile and true to you that you are willing to expose yourself to the elements of failure for? Pain and failure cannot be avoided but we can choose what we experience pain and failure for.

Its true that fear of failure rides shotgun in the car whenever we do something risky and vulnerable, but we don’t have to let that define and shape us. I certainly don’t want it to be the prominent voice in my creativity or relationships. Avoiding failure allows it to write my story, but embracing the inevitability of it allows it to grow and teach me, refining my tolerance for risk taking and set backs. Truly giving ourselves permission to fail is born out of a place of knowing that failure does not have the power to give identity, it is only a symptom of living a risky and full life. 2018 feels freer and filled with more hope now that I have given my self-protective, guarded, fearful heart permission to fail.