Sylvia Sandler, M.A., MFTi
Dear LA-CAMFT colleagues:
In a recent meeting welcoming new interns at the community mental health center where I work, I was introduced to an awe-inspiring concept which forever redefined the topic of failure for me. Many, including myself, go to great lengths to circumvent failure. Our society puts a tremendous amount of pressure on succeeding. Just consider how in today’s day and age, Little Leagues award trophies to players regardless of skill set for simply belonging to the team. Don’t get me wrong. “Showing up” is of great importance and an impactful lesson for our little ones to learn. Many would argue that showing up is half the battle won. In fact, many of the adults seeking mental health treatment often struggle with the concept of being present or even showing up, which points to having to learn to take personal accountability/responsibility. Yet, is it necessary to win an award for being present? One might think that being part of the experience in and of itself is the true reward. Why is it necessary for an external object to reinforce experience? When did an external object become the focal point of victory? Back when I was a child, trophies were granted for extraordinary performance by individuals that stood apart from the rest of the crowd. Somehow we knew that not everyone on the team had equal abilities, and it appeared that we accepted our own limitations and those of others more easily than today.
That was then, but this is now. Now things are filtered through a different lens. To be sure, ours is a society that reveres competition and encourages the notion of “survival of the fittest” rather than celebrating our unique sense of self. You might ask what does this have to do with the topic of failure. Let me take you back to the day when a new colleague of mine reframed for me the concept of failure. It all happened when my new colleague introduced himself to the new cohort of interns. He gave his name, the name of the graduate school he is attending and subsequently identified his hopes and expectations for how things would unfold during his traineeship at our center. This new colleague immediately engaged everyone in the room. He had the gift of gab, a great clinical mind, and a level of enthusiasm that was highly contagious. In a moment of genuine expression of vulnerability, our colleague ended his introduction by stating, “I look forward to failing spectacularly.” This statement had a huge impact on me because it reminded me of my own humanity. We are not meant to be automatons. We are supposed to make mistakes and learn from them. My colleague’s statement reminded me to look at failure in a positive light.
What does “failing spectacularly” mean? For me, failure can become an opportunity to do something different or better. Failing spectacularly is a necessary part of success. Take, for instance, a baby that is attempting to take his/her first step. The first step the baby takes will most likely be wobbly. The second time the baby attempts to walk, those steps may prove more stable, and yet because the experience is still so new, the baby may continue to fall down. No matter – because day in and day out, the baby will keep going until mastering walking altogether. In other words, the baby is not weighed down by thoughts of “failure.” In my view, failing spectacularly requires us to act. When we act, we are putting into motion the opportunity for learning and integrating the experience. We then test out the new learning and follow it up with another attempt to act again. Each layering of experience expands who we are. Failing spectacularly affords us the chance to grow into ourselves and increase our current knowledge base. When I look back at the times in which I “failed,” I realize that either the victory I was seeking wasn’t mine in the first place, or that I needed to integrate this failure into my overall experience and learn to tolerate the discomfort of failure. Mind you, persistence and being willing to stay in a space of insecurity and not knowing is not easy. Yet, in doing so, one will be better prepared for future possibilities. In tolerating discomfort, one must condition their muscles to tolerate the unknown. So next time someone wishes you good luck in an endeavor, you might just answer them with, “I rather you wish me the opportunity to fail spectacularly.”
Sylvia J. Sandler, M.A., is the current editor of Voices for LA-CAMFT, and holds a subsequent registration as a Marriage and Family Therapist Intern, IMF#90381. Sylvia is bi-lingual and fully proficient in reading and writing in the Spanish language. Sylvia is gaining hours for licensing at The Ness Counseling Center and previously worked at Chabad Treatment Center Outpatient. You may reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.