I was climbing yesterday. I sat at the wall and watched with envy as a guy calmly twisted his way up one of the most difficult routes. His body was almost parallel with the ground at times! It was beautiful. And I was jealous. Afterwards, I started talking to him and learned a lot, not from what he told me, but from what he did afterwards. I learned that my envy was misdirected towards what he did, and should’ve been towards what he didn’t do.
“Did you just do that black and purple route?” I asked.
“Yea,” he nodded. He had tight curly hair that covered his head and came down to form a neat beard around his face.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone complete that,” I said. “I don’t even think I’ve seen someone try it, but it’s hard to tell.”
He smiled. “It’s tough. I worked at it though. I did it so many times that now I know exactly how to do it.”
I was jealous. I was inspired, too. But I thought more about how he did it, and how I couldn’t. I didn’t think about how it was good that someone from the crew here at the wall had practiced and mastered that route. My insecurity hummed loudly in the back of my head so I didn’t really listen to what he said.
I tried another route, one that I’d been trying to get. Failure. I reached for that hold, the problem one. Slip. A short fall to the padded ground.
I sat down and let my throbbing shoulders and forearms recuperate. The guy I had been talking to was now going up another difficult route. I watched expectantly, as he reached carefully and methodically, pulling himself up. A small hold that required significant grip strength was the next one, and he reached for it. And missed. He rolled into his fall, and got back up. He said nothing and sat down. He tried again. I knew he would make it this time. But he failed. But he tried again. And failed again. And then again. Fail. And then again. Fail.
I often hear that failure makes you stronger. I hear it, but like many things people tell you that are good and right and you should do, I nod and don’t act on it. Maybe because of ego, maybe laziness. Then I have the opportunity to see someone who is skilled and how he failed. Again and again and again. And I’m reminded of how failure works:
Failure sucks. You fall. And it hurts.
And it doesn’t matter what you’ve accomplished before, because at present, you’re failing. But that’s the point. If you’re not failing, you’re sitting, watching the wall, or going over and over the same places you’ve gone before, and you’re not getting better. And you know it. But at least you’re not getting hurt. At least you’re not losing face, right?
We focus on the success. I looked at what the guy did, but what made me appreciate what he did was what he didn’t do afterwards. On the second route, he didn’t make it up to the top. He repeatedly didn’t make it. And I didn’t see him make it that day. But he kept trying.
I tried my route several more times yesterday. I never reached the top. But I will. Because if you’re paying attention, failure teaches you, and then you make it. It teaches you to put in the time. Consistently. Over and over and over. And maybe that time gets you to the top of a climbing route. Or graduating from school. Maybe it’s finishing writing a book. Maybe it’s doing a lifting regime to strengthen your body, or a meditation practice to settle your mind.
Maybe most importantly, failure teaches you that things aren’t alright, and they never will be.
There’s always going to be that new route that you’re not going to be able to do. And you learn to accept that. Or maybe you learn to accept your father’s judgments, because sometimes, people don’t change. Or maybe it’s facing up to your own faults, accepting yourself so that life stops being a competition to win, and instead it’s an opportunity to learn. To help others. To spread the love, instead of hoarding it all for yourself because you just can’t afford to let any out.
And even if you don’t make it, you know something now. You’re no longer a spectator. Because you’ve put in real, intelligent effort, and you have skills that the consumers and the critics who are only watching may have some idea about, but they don’t really know like you do. Because you decided to wade into the mess.
Congratulations. You’re no longer afraid to get dirty, afraid to fail, or too lazy to try.
You are in it now.
And this is where life gets good.