No Name Calling

Success is going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.” – Winston Churchill

About ten days ago, a week before my daughter’s elementary school let out for the summer, there was a school Field Day where the entire student body of 400 kids played games at 28 stations to earn food and prizes. They were looking for volunteers so I tended the soccer kick station with another parent.

It was an easy 10 feet kick into a goal. We had a lot of kids come by – Kindergartners who had feet about the size of a deck of cards, differently abled kids that came by with their instructional aides, and most of the student body including the 5th graders who looked like they were ready to take on the world.

Everyone was displaying great spirits until one girl, perhaps in the 4th grade came by with a friend and gave the ball a kick. I shouted “Wuhoo” and she said, “Don’t say ‘Wuhoo.’ I’m a failure.” And I said that she kicked the ball with lots of strength and she repeated, “I’m a failure.”

Her ball hadn’t gone in (we didn’t really require that) but most kids could get it in, even the little Kindergartners. So I gave it her the ball again and said, “Kick it again.” And she did – without even really trying and it didn’t go in. She said, “See, I’m a failure.”

I was flummoxed. Her assertation that she was a failure was a wall that seemed to keep everything from going in. With that up, it didn’t seem like anything could penetrate.

With the first post I wrote about confidence, I can, I quoted author and psychiatrist Neel Burton who distinguished confidence from similar concepts by explaining confidence is feeling “I can,” self-esteem is feeling “I am” and pride is the feeling of “I did.”

When the little girl came to the soccer kick station, she both asserted that she couldn’t and that she was a failure. And once that was in the air it seemed to operate like a foregone conclusion for which there was no quick fix.

Because we can fail over and over again and still be confident. Here are some examples.

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan

Failure is only an opportunity to begin again more intelligently.” – Henry Ford

A woman who never gives up can’t fail.” – Abby Wambach

The distinction seems to lie between admitting we’ve failed without calling ourselves a failure. I hadn’t thought much about that small difference until I heard researcher and author, Brené Brown tell a story about when her daughter was in pre-school. The pre-school teacher told Brené that one day after Brené’s daughter had been doing art at the glitter table the teacher said to her, “You are a mess.” And the daughter retorted, “I might be messy right now but I’m not a mess.”

In the retelling, Brené laughed and said that her roots as a shame researcher were visible. We can describe our current situation without calling ourselves names. No name calling is a rule in my household since I heard that story, and I apply that to the conversations I have with myself as well.

My daughter overheard me telling my mom about the little girl who called herself a failure at Field Day and was fascinated by the story. It was a great opportunity to talk with her about what happens if we believe the names we call ourselves. I hope the ripple effect is that she won’t call herself names and maybe even say something if she hears someone else doing it.

This is my fifth post about confidence. Here are the others:

I Can

Fear and Confidence

Growth Mind-set

Bossy Pants – Confidence and Leadership

The Beauty of Failure

Don’t let the internet rush you, no one is posting their failures.” – Wesley Snipes

The other day I failed for the second time to guess a Wordle and learned another life lesson as exemplified by this word game. By the way, no knowledge or affinity for Wordle is necessary to understand this life lesson but for anyone who hasn’t tried Wordle and is curious, here are the basics:

You have six tries to guess a five letter word. You are not given any information to start with but when you enter a guess, you are told if you have any right letters and they are green if correct in the right spot and yellow if they are used on the word but in the wrong spot. There is one word per day.

By the third guess I’d figured out the pattern was _ O _ E R

There were too many possible combinations – LOWER, MOVER, CODER, JOKER so I didn’t work out FOYER within the allotted 6 guesses.

But here’s what I noticed – it was WAY easier to fail the second time. The first time ended my 50 win streak and I was pierced, more than felt reasonable for a silly word game.

Noticing this, I think failing helps me shake the belief that I can be perfect. The longer streak that I had, the more brittle I became about not failing. It felt like there’s a longer way to fall, even if it’s just a silly word game.

It reminded me of a definition of perfection that Brené Brown provides in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. “Perfection is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. It’s a shield. Perfectionism is a twenty-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it is the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.”

I’m not advocating practicing failing. But I am suggesting talking about it and laughing about it when we do. For me, it doesn’t change the impression of anyone around me who are well aware I’m not perfect. But it does penetrate my illusion that I think I can or have to maintain some persona that is impervious to failure. Even the fact that I have an ego still after years of meditating to find the Unity in life needs piercing.

So, thank you, Wordle. Not only for the two minutes of daily entertainment but a few good life lessons too!

(featured photo by Pexels)

Wordle as a Metaphor for Life?

You can’t win a game 7 without losing three games first. Keep going.” – Shea Serrano

As I having trouble solving Wordle the other day, I realized that I have been unusually focused on the word I used to start the puzzle. I’ve asked my friends that also play it what word they use. I’ve tried a few different ones myself, often using S-T-E-R-N since it represents some of the letters used most frequently used in English.

[For anyone who hasn’t tried to play this game that was recently bought by the NY Times, Wordle is a game where you have six tries to guess a common five letter word. You are not given any information to start with but when you enter a guess, you are told if you have any right letters and they are green if correct in the right spot and yellow if they are used on the word but in the wrong spot. Letters can be repeated. There is one word a day and everyone gets the same word so rest assured, this post doesn’t reveal today’s wordle.]

But as I typed in my word and got the result that the answer had none of those letters, I realized that knowing what isn’t in the word is equally as important.

The absence of a positive result is also informative.

It makes me think of a story about Thomas Edison. As he was trying to invent the light bulb, he tried more than a hundred different types of materials to use for the filament. Someone asked if he got discouraged and he said that he didn’t because each failure told him one more thing that didn’t work.

So Wordle is just the latest reminder that life is best met by continuing attempts to try. Every failure is just another opportunity to see what doesn’t fit. When I feel great resistance to something I’m doing in work or parenting, it presents an opportunity to think about whether I should push harder or try another tactic.

Some of life’s lessons are the hardest because we learn what not to do. But they are also some of the most valuable lessons, especially when we are able to distill the information and heal the trauma.

I did finally get the Wordle on the sixth try – phew! Because there weren’t very many letters left to combine into a common word (letters in dark gray on the keyboard indicate they have been tried and are not used in the word). It reminded me yet again, failure is an excellent source of information. Here it is in case you want to guess.

Back on Top

When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.” – John Muir

Sometimes I think I can more easily name mountain climbing trips where I didn’t summit than the ones I did. Like that time on Mt. Elbrus in Russia where I was throwing up at our camp at 13,500 ft and stayed in the hut with the really funny, nice guy from California who had a headache. Or the time on Mt. Orizaba in Mexico when we couldn’t cross that exposed couloir because the ice was too fractious to get a screw in. In both cases I was a long way from home not to succeed and maybe that’s why they stand out — though I can name the ones closer to home as well.

Looking back at those climbs now, I see they were a way for me to practice two elements of life “in play” before having to live them. I started climbing mountains in my late 20’s before I had racked up any big life losses.  So the first thing I was practicing is trying, that decision to tackle something that is really gutsy for me, not knowing whether or not I would succeed. And the second I was developing was being able to fail without seeing myself as a failure.

There’s a critical element of letting go for me when I don’t succeed. It is humility, recognizing limits. It’s all about accepting that I don’t have to be finished in order to be loved, even by or especially by myself. That self-acceptance has come with practicing failing. A choice between leaning in towards the love that has always held me or branding myself unworthy.

Here’s what climbing has taught me. Standing on top is great, especially if I’m mindful of the sacredness of what I see up there. It is a moment to take in all the commitment and teamwork it took to get there. But failing to get to the top just means I get to spend more time in the mountains and I practice that key part of life – trying. Lucky me!

I’ve also learned a secret — no one else in my life really cares whether I summit or not. As long as I walk back into the parking lot upright and smiling, it’s good enough for the people who know and love me. Of course they care if it’s important to me but often it’s what I try that sticks in their minds, not what I succeed at. No one else is tallying a score card of my life.

None of these things are only about climbing because now that I’ve failed plenty in my “real” life, I know they are just as true about life in general. It’s not easy to keep trying big things and its hard to fail – but practicing it makes it easier.

Years ago I had a friend who said to me in a moment of vulnerability when his dad died suddenly, “I just wish he’d been able to see me back on top.” He’d gone through some really hard life losses right before his dad passed and the pain of wanting to be successful in his dad’s eyes was palpable.

I can’t speak authoritatively for my friend’s father but I knew him as a gentle and wise man. I believe he already saw his son back on top. Because my friend was still trying and still smiling.


“Once you make a decision, the universe conspires to make it happen” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

About six years ago I had coffee with a childhood friend. At the time he had been separated from his wife with whom he shared three teenage kids for about three years and though he said he knew it was over (his wife had a boyfriend), they hadn’t gotten divorced yet. He explained it was of the health insurance but he seemed a little angry and unresolved as well. As a newly divorced person who’d spent some time in that in-between place too, I told him, he had to get divorced. “Why?” he asked. “I can’t explain why” I said “but it matters.”

I was thinking of that conversation the other day when I was unloading the dishwasher. I had done the bottom rack and the silverware but was interrupted by the chaos and flurry of the morning routine with my kids and didn’t finish. When I came back to the sink, there were dishes there, I went to put them in the dishwasher, couldn’t because I hadn’t finished the job and it made me chuckle. A half empty dishwasher is no good to anyone!

Why is it so hard to finish things? Maybe we often get distracted by the noise and the flurry. But I know also with me there’s also the impulse to hedge my bet just in case I change my mind. Or the finality comes with a lump that is hard to accept. I know that was part of my hesitancy to finish the legal filing to get divorced when I went through it – I didn’t want to accept the title and the failure that I felt it conveyed. And now looking back on it ten years later, I see that it wasn’t a failure, but a catapult. I’ve never built one myself but I understand that catapults work when someone cuts the cord.

In the Sound of Music, Maria says, “When God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.” I’ve come to think of these alternative doors like an air lock. The next door won’t open until the first is fully closed. The Universe does not know how to help until we clearly commit to the path we are on. Our spirits cannot embody two half lives.

About six months ago my childhood friend wrote me an email that he had gotten divorced. After nearly 10 years being separated he had finally finished. And then about three months after that, he wrote me again to tell me about the new woman he was dating. I felt his happiness and applauded him — and I was also so gratified to know that even when you delay finishing the cycle for so long, it still works once you do.