Failure at something is how we learn. We try, we fail, we adjust, make notes, turn a tweak and try again. We may eventually win or we may find something else along the way that takes us in a whole new direction.
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“I’m not good at it,” he said, as if that were reason enough not to try.
“What does ‘good’ have to do with it?” I asked.
“I can’t do it.”
“You won’t do it,” I corrected. “There’s a difference.”
We were standing outside the batting cage with a handful of quarters and helmets that smelled of sweat and disinfectant. I had planned the outing as a bit of fun, a chance for some bonding and a hint of exercise on an otherwise lazy spring day. I never considered that a few swings against the machine could be met with clouds of doubt and hesitation.
Granted, he isn’t a fan of sports in general and I knew that going in. I get it. I never really cared for sports as a kid either, but unlike him my fears were somewhat justified by my gangly lack of grace and the coordination of a wet noodle — obstacles he need not overcome, fit as he is, strong and agile.
His was just an assumption of dislike based on a bat being in his hands where a video game should be — the collective murmurs of society and stereotypes.
“I’m not good at hitting,” he said as we watched a kid in the cage hit ball after ball, the ping, ping, ping of her bat sending each high into the net like some jet-powered butterfly.
“What does that mean?” I asked. “What is ‘good,’ and why does it matter?”
“I can’t hit all the balls.”
“I can’t hit very far.”
“Distance is relative.”
He stood there, somewhat flummoxed and slightly amused. I could see the wheels turning in his head, playing at jokes and weighing his options. I get that, too.
“Look,” I said. “Good is not a thing. We aren’t at the batting cages because you’re trying out for the Dodgers; we are here to have fun. I would hate to think that you wouldn’t do something you enjoyed just because you didn’t believe you were good enough. Good is for people yelling at their TV set like their opinion means something. This is a game. You play it.”
I felt myself searching through my mental archive of ballgame monologues, the lollygagging and lack of crying that Hollywood has offered as silver screen inspiration, but none of it fit our moment. Those were words of make-believe, and oftentimes Costner.
“There is no gauge for success here,” I added. “Except fun.”
“But what if I don’t hit any of the balls?”
“What if you don’t try and never know?”
“I would rather not do it at all than be bad at it.”
And there it was. The fear of failure, at least his understanding of it, was stronger than his desire to try.
“Failing at something does not make you a failure,” I said.
“Isn’t that exactly what it means?” he asked.
“It seems that way. Everybody is always focused on winning like it alone defines success. That isn’t true, no matter how many times you hear it. Failing at something is how we learn. We try, we fail, we adjust, make notes, turn a tweak and try again. We may continue to fail. We may get better than ‘good.’ We may win or we may find something else along the way that takes us in a whole new direction. Failing is where learning comes from.”
He looked like he was listening.
“It’s my turn,” he said as the cage gate opened.
“Are you ready to have some fun?” I asked.
“I’m ready to try,” he said, though I’m not sure he believed it.
He put the quarters in the slot and squinted toward the sunshine.
“What do I do now?” he asked.
“Just swing and smile,” I said.
And that is what he did.
Photo for “Failure” by Whit Honea.