The Art of Failure: Cultivating Tenacity

As I mentioned in a recent post (or two), the South Park YMCA here in Halifax (my former base of operations) closed its doors at the end of May, leaving many (including myself) seeking new haunts for the summer. In a bold (pronounced “broke”) move, I decided to shift my focus largely towards bodyweight training and gymnastics skills for the summer. I also put together a summer program, “Primal”, where my participants train three times weekly in much the same way. (You’ve never seen so many bear crawls!)

For most of my animals, the basic gymnastics skills we have been working on (forward and backward rolls at this point) are completely unexplored territory (outside of their childhoods), and present a pretty significant challenge. Let’s face it, going upside down is scary if you’re new to it, especially when you’re still learning how to control the situation once you get up there. (You have to eat a little grass before you earn that skill!) It’s in the face of this challenge that I can really see the difference in attitudes my participants take towards their training (and by extension, maybe a large part of their lives). The ones that stand out, in particular, are those who try, fail and say “I can’t”, and those who try, fail, and try again. I’ll wager you can bet which ones impress me.

Tenacity is something I feel is lacking in our modern world of fitness, where everyone wants a quick solution to their problem without real commitment and most keep well away from their physical boundaries in favour of exercise that is comfortable and easy (read: useless). When we shy away from challenge, whether it is a new skill to be learned or a hard workout, we miss out on everything that challenge could teach us about ourselves, all the self-improvement towards which it might lead us. So often we’re afraid to fail, so afraid that others around us (or we ourselves) will judge us as incompetent, so afraid that they’ll laugh.

But why should we be self-conscious about this? Everyone who has ever been good at something has experienced their fair share of missed reps, misplayed notes, poorly drawn noses, or balls dropped. What would have happened if Michelangelo took one look at his first shitty painting, shook his head, and snapped his brush asunder? That’s right, the Sistine Chapel would probably be selling that empty ceiling for ad space! Every person who you admire for their success (save a lucky damn few) spent a good portion of their journey falling down. What separated your hero from the scrubs on their knees beside them was that they got back up again. And again. And again. (Rinse, repeat as necessary)

The real trick is accepting the inevitability of failure when learning something new (it’s just part of the process!), but at the same time refusing to accept that we won’t succeed. The minute we start making excuses (“I’m just too tall to learn the handstand!”) or becoming complacent with failure (“I’m just not good at this, and I never will be, so whatever…”) we lose pretty much any chance of succeeding (at least until that attitude gets a serious adjustment). It almost seems narcissistic to me, to claim to be so in touch and aware of your own abilities that you know you’ll never be able to learn a new skill. How can anyone claim they’ve learned everything there is to know about themselves? Those who have really learned, those who have courageously endured being forged in the fires of experience, will know better than anyone how far out those limits are, how much can be achieved with enough tenacity.

Most of us aren’t going to be successful the first time we try something new. Hell, a lot of us won’t be successful on the tenth try, or the twentieth! The important thing is that you cultivate an attitude of accepting the inevitability of failure in the short term while being intolerant of it in the long term. After all, only by failing will you know where your weaknesses lie, and only by rising again to confront that failure head-on will you scour that weakness away.

Maybe you’ll even make that weakness your strength, someday.

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