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I’ve been thinking about failure lately. It started when I was watching a new student and they weren’t moving. They just stood on the mat not doing the technique I had just taught. This happens with the younger students but usually it’s because they’re distracted or not paying attention or just plain fooling around. Barking out something like, “come on, let’s go!” or “work!” get’s them moving. I could tell by the look on this student’s face there was something else going on. Their expression was frozen and I could see behind their eyes their mind was locked too – stuck in this moment of time like a fly in amber.


There is only one thing in us with this kind of power – fear. When we think of fear it congers images of wide eyes and hands clenched at the face like the poor girl in a horror move that wonders out into the dark woods first.  Fear, however, is much more clever and sneaky than this melodramatic association. Moreover, it’s with us all the time, hiding in the shadows of our daily lives, and influencing our every action (or inaction as the case may be.)


Fear can be like the second hand of a clock ticking in background so often and quiet that when we look at the time we ignore it. However, like everything, it has its good and bad. On the positive side it’s our emotional warning system guiding us away from harm. On the negative, it steers us away from failure. That’s right, most of the time we should be headed straight for failure, embracing it, reaching out for it. More often than not success and failure are held tight together at the same barring. Unfortunately, most of us revere failure as something to be avoided all together. It’s definitely something we should be prepared for but also something we need to drive straight to. Think of the race car driver that gets in their car with a helmet and fire suit on and buckles their seat belt ready for a crash. Why?  Because there is a thin line between winning the race and crashing the car – a thin line between success and failure.  


When I went over to talk to the student, they made it clear that they weren’t moving because they were afraid they wouldn’t do the technique exactly right. They were right, they wouldn’t. As a white belt that had only been training for a month or so, I expect them to do quite a bad job at the technique – at least as poorly as I did the first time I tried the same technique.  The student’s path to success was paved with failures but they were afraid to step on the first stone.


For me watching this student unreasonably locked with fear was one of those moments where I got a glimpse behind the curtain. If this little demon had such a tight grip on this student, how was it gripping me and others in ways we hadn’t noticed yet?  Then I ran across an article in the December 2011 issue of Men’s Health, From Worrier to Warrior. The article explores a new psychological theory that basically states that facing your fears is the biggest step one can make toward health, happiness and success. It goes on to explain that, “Problems take hold because of our desperate attempts to avoid feelings that make us uncomfortable.”  So there it was, I was starting to figure out what fear is up to.


Fear, like a virus, bacteria or those damn bed bugs, is adaptive. We all got big speeches from our fathers or other mentors when we were young about how it was okay to be afraid but not okay to let it stop us. So, stepping out onto the field before a big game, tapping gloves before our first fight or asking out that hottie in our home room are the kinds of things we work up the nerve to do. Therefore, fear had to adapt and become quieter and sneaky. Sure it still screams in our face now and again causing our hearts to pound and palms to sweat. But, it spends most of its time whispering in our ear stopping us from making little decisions.  It plants little excuses in our heads so that we blame anything but fear for our decisions. We even rename it to things like worry, nervousness and panic.  It causes us not to do or try things… even little things because we are afraid to fail.


Obviously the first step to dealing with it is recognizing the little things in our life we avoid because of these subtle fears.  The secret, according to the article in Men’s Health, is to not avoid the fear but accept and work through it (the article has a five step process that I’m not going to repeat but it’s worth a read.) However, when fear is tied to failure, we can embrace the failure.


I watch martial artist embrace failure every day. I stated in my first blog post, The dojo: Our Quiet Little Koi Pond, that for me, the dojo is a safe place to fail. The whole purpose for stepping on the mat every day is to screw up so much that we learn how to do something right. The same mistakes made outside of the dojo walls may equal death.  Because martial artist have such a positive relationship with failure, fear doesn’t have the same chance to do its dirty work. Moreover, the reason this works for them is they practice it every day.  An article like the one in Men’s Health is enlightening, but its principles soon fade without practice. Therefore the martial art becomes self-help in action.


The value to understanding the roll failure plays in a successful life is great. On my radio show, Seacoast Business Connections, I just acquired new co-hosts. These two gentlemen are on the air with me, every fourth Monday of the month, telling the story of their companies success.  They started the company, Pixel Media, in the mid nineties and it now thrives as one of the New Hampshire Seacoast’s biggest technology company success stories. One of the things they talk about that contributes to their success – their willingness to fail.  In order to take the chances necessary to succeed they first had to embrace failure. Oh, and buy the way, one of them is a dedicated Muay Thai student.


The story of Pixel Media is a grand one, but what are the stories that happen every day to everyone when they’re were willing to take a chance, shrugged of the embarrassment of failure, squelch the quiet whispers of fear? I for one will be listening for those quiet moments of fear and trying to move past them. I’ll be looking for places to fail. And I will be looking to my martial arts family to continue to humble me and keep my skills of failure sharp so that I may succeed.

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