My greatest fear is looking like an idiot. I’m more afraid of that than getting cancer, being hit by a bus or losing my job. It’s not a worthwhile fear to have, and yet most days are negotiations of whether or not my clothes are okay, whether or not there’s a typo hidden in one of my articles, how to say what I want to say without pissing anyone off and how to wear a hat without making my hair do something stupid.
Most people struggle with insecurity at some point in their lives. I do battle with it often enough to call it a frenemy. I tell myself that it started in third grade when my then-best friend Anna Morales told me, on the playground (that hotbed of pre-teen drama), that she no longer wanted to be best friends. Or any kind of friends. I couldn’t have pulled the word “loser” from a thesaurus lineup at that point, and yet I knew for certain that:
1) I didn’t want to be one, and
2) I probably was one.
Over the years I’ve come to believe that some of us are born with a propensity for insecurity. Some people can cook well, some people can run fast, some people can doubt their every word/thought/move. It’s a talent, really. Just not one that will win any talent competition.
Lately I’ve been wondering why failure is such a bad thing, though. We live in a time of anti-failure sentiment. Teenagers in reality TV shows regularly bellow, “Failure’s not an option!” But of course it is. Because when success is your only option, it’s not, by definition, an option. Failure is what makes success sweet. It’s also what makes success a thing at all. Trial and error without error is just doing stuff. You win some, you lose some without losing some is just playing a game who’s outcome is predetermined — like tic-tac-toe once you know to claim the middle spot. Failure is probably more valuable than success — it’s a better teacher, a better motivator, a better whetstone. Failure teaches us not just how to do something right, but how to be humble, compassionate, interested, focused and hungry. Being human is way more about failing that it is about succeeding: Truly interesting people come with scars, battle stories, broken hearts and a capacity to self-heal and soldier on.
Losers make far better fictional characters than winners.
So what if I actually try to fail? That’s what I’ve been asking myself for the last few months. What if I say things that people won’t like, write stuff that won’t get published, wear weird dresses and sing along to Taylor Swift songs? What if I set up challenges that I know I can’t accomplish? What if I’m the only one who wears a Halloween costume to work? What I go our for a drink alone and read a book in a crowded bar? What I take French lessons or dance lessons or singing lessons and suck royally in front of a room full of strangers?
What if, whenever failure is an option, I opt for it?
Last weekend I went to a concert and wrote a review. I’ve done this hundreds of times — this is not the part where I look like an idiot. I took my time with the review, did a little research, added in some quotes, wrote something meaningful. In one of the quotes, the musician said that after his tour he was going to retire that set of songs. I included that because it underscored the rare beauty of the show. That’s important to know because, after I posted it online, it got a zillion hits by fans who were either freaked out about the songs being retired, or eager to point out that the quote was made in jest.
1) By a zillion hits I mean more like two.
2) The comment didn’t sound like jest and it’s my job to report on what I hear.
3) I can only imagine the musician at his next show telling the story of the idiot reviewer who claimed he was retiring his setlist. “The press gets everything wrong,” he’ll say. People say that.
4) I wanted, desperately, to take the post down. To not risk being wrong. To not have strangers on social media make fun of me.
5) Strangers on social media: You are the worst. (Except for when you’re not.)
All of the above. Yes. But I’m going to let this failure play out. If I fail, it was with the best of intentions — with some lovely turns of phrase, with the desire to lift up a musician whose show inspired me. If I look like an idiot for any of those reasons, I think I can live with it.
I know I can live with it. No one has ever died from looking like an idiot. I don’t even have to research that fact, I’m just going to say it right here and now and deal with the consequences.