I’m in a spiral. That’s what my husband called it and he’s right. I’ve gotten so into my head about potential failure at this goal I’ve set that I’m paralyzed. And then that crisis of confidence leeches into other areas of life, too. Basically my mojo is nonexistent — it’s not just skill-based things that challenge me anymore, it’s daily necessities like parallel parking and finding my cell phone. Does this ever happen to you?
It all started back on October 1 with three beanbags and a dream — I was going to learn to juggle. How hard could it be? Watch a couple of videos. Put in the required time. And then boom — I’m a juggler. Sounded so easy. Instead, I’ve been trying too hard, and am way too anxious to say, “Look, I learned to juggle in a month and you can, too!” I’ve completely psyched myself out. Even the simplest throws that I mastered weeks ago I’m a mess with now.
My family is trying to be supportive but their comfort boils down to, “If you’re not having fun, just stop.” And “Does it really matter if you can juggle?” Of course that’s true, but what does it say when you can’t master juggling?
I turned to the online community for support. I Googled “How long to learn to juggle.” Who knew how many people were struggling with this? I happened upon one response that really made me feel I’d met a kindred spirit. He wrote, “It took me three months practicing nonstop to juggle three balls.” Finally, I was validated! Then he said he was 9 years old. I felt like Elaine in Seinfeld when she falls for the guy at the video store who makes the movie recommendations. She loves every movie he picks and wants to meet him. Then she finds out he’s a teenager.
Why did I have to go and overshare that I wanted to learn to juggle? Part of my spiral is directly correlated to going public with my goal. I’ve always admired people who can declare a future success and then make it happen. “I am the Greatest” made Muhammad Ali famous, and sure enough he won that fight against Sonny Liston. My friend was in a triathlon and another athlete was rude to her at the starting line. My friend made it her one goal to beat that woman, and then she did. Oh, how I admire people who can channel that competitive spirit so it brings out their best performance. For me, going public has the opposite affect — I get so in my head that I bring about my own demise.
Writer Emily Bennington makes the distinction between “thinking” and “thoughting,”
Thinking is accepting the facts of where you are and creating a logical path forward. In other words, it’s strategic. Thoughting, on the other hand, is emotional. It’s the time you waste picturing yourself publicly dive-bombing, wishing things were different, and focusing on the stress rather than the work.
Well Emily, you read me like a book. “Thoughting” is my go-to state. I’ve always had to chip away at something alone and then reveal the results. I applied to business school with only half a dozen people knowing. That way I didn’t have to worry about everyone’s pity or concern — I could just reveal the success if it happened. No success, no messy conversations. Same thing when I learned to golf. I went to the driving range at the crack of dawn for months before venturing out in public. By the time I went out with a friend, I played better than she did. This was even my strategy to meet my husband. I had been hoping to be introduced to him for months but never asked our very close mutual friends to set us up. Way too much pressure to make it work. I had to wait nearly a year to serendipitously end up at the same party.
My friend Cindy jokes about how I dropped a painting class because it was too stressful. We laugh at the irony that a class meant to be fun and creative could crush me (sounds like my juggling conundrum). Part of it is that it bums me out when I have a harder time doing something than someone else — eyeing all those other creative spirits was too much pressure for left-brain me. I’m not competitive, it’s not that I want to be better than them, but it frustrates me that they seem to have it easier than I do.
Boy, do I appreciate how hard it is to be a kid. Every day, kids are expected to try things that might not be their forte, subjecting them to frustration, humiliation (and occasionally, blessedly, a new passion). It’s not easy being thrown into things outside your comfort zone day in and day out.
We adults get to pick and choose (mostly) what we do. We can do the things we like and are good at, and avoid the things we don’t or aren’t. I think this is why we often turn to the mundane (but achievable) before the challenging (and unknown). I’ll get to the financial planning as soon as the kitchen is clean. I’ll look for a new job after we get through the retreat. We can always kick those scary unknowns down the road just a little. It’s not that I want to wait, it’s that I’ve been so busy with other stuff.
It has been good for my family to see me go through this frustration (even if it’s over something as ridiculous as juggling). I am usually able to seem pretty in control — I manage the house and meals and helping with homework, etc., fairly fluidly. Not “mother of the year” status, but mostly in control. It might be because parents generally bite off the tasks they are decent at, or stay relatively in their comfort zone, that kids think parents have all the answers. Now they can see their mother fall flat on her face. They could see the same thing if I tried to compete in their football, diving, tennis, kung fu or guitar, and if I tried to take their science or social studies tests.
Now I’ve got to decide if I should have bothered trying to learn to juggle in the first place. It feels like nothing more than a pile of angst. On the positive side, it wasn’t that much time — it was 10 minutes a day (some days when I was really frustrated I took more, and that made it even worse). And I’d always thought it would be cool to juggle, so I finally tried. On the other hand, it was sooooo frustrating and made me feel so stupid — I felt like Jennifer Gray in Dirty Dancing when she’s practicing on the dock and just can’t get the steps. Only I had no background music or success after a three-minute montage.
We all know “Better to Try and Fail Than Never to Try at All,” the title of the poem by William F. O’Brien. Sounds logical, makes sense. But failing is painful (whether you’re talking about something as mundane as juggling or as significant as investing your life savings in a business venture). So I read up a bit on pros and cons of trying and failing. Interestingly, most writing on the benefits of failure assumes an inevitable payoff with future success (like Thomas Edison inventing the lightbulb after 1,000 attempts). Ralph Heath, author of Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big says, “The quickest road to success is to possess an attitude toward failure of ‘no fear.'” So it’s easier to write about failure when there’s a pot of gold at the end. But what if there isn’t? There’s not as much writing on that.
J.K. Rowling talks about how her rags to riches story is often portrayed like this. Reporters tie up the story of bouncing back from rock bottom with a neat bow, while she says it was long and deeply painful while going through it. During a Harvard commencement speech she says the biggest benefit of going through that period was the “stripping away of the inessential” to find clarity that she was meant to write.
For me, the gambit of future success based on current failure is not enough. What gives a little comfort is the last stanza of O’Brien’s poem:
When many moons have gone by,
And you are alone with your dreams of yesteryear,
All your memories will bring you cheer.
You’ll be satisfied, succeed or fail, win or lose,
Knowing the right path you did choose.
I do think my family and I will look back and laugh at the “juggling period” (“all your memories will bring you cheer”). Even if it’s been at my expense, it’s been a humorous blip in the relative status quo of family life. For me, probably the biggest motivator to go for it (even if it ends in failure) is regret. I don’t want to look back and regret not trying something. I don’t want to be “alone with my dreams of yesteryear,” thinking coulda, woulda, shoulda. While I may never be juggling fire or swords, at least I gave it a shot.
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