What is failure?
Stop and ask random people on the street and most of them would probably give you a similar answer—failure is not doing something successfully.
If you start a business and it goes under, that’s a failure.
If you don’t get at least 65 on your math test, that’s a failure.
If you get married and it doesn’t work out, that’s a failure.
Look up the word in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and one of the definitions is “a lack of success.”
I spent the majority of my life believing that failure was not succeeding at an endeavor. I also used to always view failure in a negative light—only when I failed, of course. When family or friends failed, I felt empathy and understanding. I was proud of them for trying. Only for myself did I reserve harshness and judgment.
The first time I heard Spanx founder Sara Blakely speak, my definition of failure was forever changed. I listened to a podcast interview during which she explained that growing up, she was encouraged to fail. At the dinner table, her father would ask her what she had failed at that week and was disappointed if she said nothing.
Blakely credits this exercise with reshaping (shapewear pun intended) her view of failure.
“Instead of failure being the outcome, failure became not trying. And it forced me at a young age to want to push myself so much further out of my comfort zone.” – Sarah Blakely
I thought about dinnertime at my house growing up. It was a neutral zone. My brother and I were certainly not encouraged to fail, nor were we punished when we did fail. But there was no expectation that we regularly put ourselves out there. For me, this neutrality resulted in me staying in my comfort zone. Unless demanded of me by an academic institution or higher authority, I chose to only pursue subjects and activities I demonstrated some natural talent for. In other words, I played it safe to avoid failure.
But viewing my past choices through Blakely’s definition of failure, I see things differently. I hadn’t avoided failure, I’d brought even more of it upon myself.
I’ve had way too many failures in my life simply for lack of trying. And those failures are harder to accept because they’re more personal.
When I was in elementary school, my mother begged me to take dance lessons, something she had always wanted to do as a child but was unable to. Initially, I outright refused, despite my secret desire to dance.
For years, we attended The Nutcracker ballet performance in Manhattan at Christmas time. I loved the dancing. I dreamt of being able to move my body across the stage with such grace. Envisioning myself as a dancer brought me joy. Sometimes after school, I would sneak down to the basement alone while my mom was cooking dinner, blast my music, and dance in the dark. I loved it.
But when the lights came on and I looked in the mirror, all I saw was a chubby, uncoordinated imposter.
I decided that the only way I would take dance lessons was if my mother would agree to hire a private instructor who would come to the house. That was my stipulation. I refused to attend group classes at a studio, afraid I wouldn’t be good enough. That I wouldn’t pick up the choreography fast enough. That my thighs weren’t thin enough to be seen in tights in public. That I would embarrass myself in front of everyone. That I would be a total failure.
Of course, my mother said no to my stipulation. We couldn’t afford house calls from a private instructor, nor was there any place in the house suitable for dance lessons. So instead of trying, I decided to live out my dreams of dancing in my mind.
Who did I fail by not trying? Me. The person I owe the most to.
I was the one who secretly wanted to dance, who wanted to put on the beautiful costumes and glide across the stage. But I was so afraid I wouldn’t meet my own definition of “good enough” that I nixed the idea. I judged myself a failure before even taking my first steps.
Thankfully, I no longer associate failure with outcomes. I associate it with not trying.
Embracing Blakely’s definition of failure, I’ve become more courageous to the point that I enjoy pushing myself out of my comfort zone. I refuse to fail myself by not trying.
And while I cannot change the past, I have resurrected my dance aspirations.
I’ve been taking group pole dance classes for years now. And as it turns out, not only do I love taking classes with other women but I am also coordinated and perfectly capable of learning choreography.
One day, I will take ballet classes too. I will honor the inner ballerina from my childhood. I will try.