Tulips and Failure

You may be wondering, “What on earth do tulips have to do with failure?” Well, as far as I know nothing, although there was the time my husband brought tulips back from The Netherlands for my kids and we “failed” to ever plant them. I just like this picture from our recent trip to Garvan Woodland Gardens in Arkansas, and I wanted to talk about failure.

It seems appropriate that I start my blogging journey discussing failure, since, for me at least, every new venture seems to start with a personal tally of all the possible ways I could fail, and I have to decide to start anyway.

Failure is a word that generally scares us. I can’t tell you how many times I decided not to interview for a job or didn’t complete work to the best of my ability because I was afraid that I would fail. And failure for me didn’t mean just not getting the job. It meant not being the best period. It meant not blowing everyone away. So I didn’t try. And I got pretty far through life doing the minimum required to “prove” to myself and others that I was capable of doing anything at least as well as anyone else. But, somehow, I never really believed it, which made me fearful that I would be found out that I was less than what I presented myself to be.

All of this changed when my first child was born. If you ever want to look perfection in the face, look into the eyes of your first-born. Not other people’s first borns. They will look like Winston Churchill, but your own will be perfect. And, if you’re like me and have lived thinking that perfection is ideal and anything less is a failure, you will be terrified at the sight of a perfect being that you may or may not mess up. So I did what I’m sure many others do when faced with a situation where they have to try and the stakes for not failing have never been higher. They go all in. I was determined to keep her perfect. That was, as I saw it, my one goal as a parent – to not let her fall from her perfect state.

I maintained her perfect state for almost four years. Notice the “I.” Sure there were bumps and tantrums, but we quickly smoothed those over. And then she started at her Montessori school. All of the sudden, she realized that she had a voice in who she was, and she wasn’t going to let me tell her who to be anymore. And just like that, my perfect little angel, whom I had started to base my identity on, became her own person. And people aren’t perfect. In particular, this person never seems to sleep, probably because she had high anxiety from a parent who expected her to be perfect all the time. This sent me into a spiral, and I honestly believed that I had failed as a mother.

The great thing about being a mother is that failure isn’t really an option. I learned to work for what I wanted – something I had rarely had to do in my life. I read books. I started workshops that were as much to help me as to help others. I learned how to let go of control, of my personal stakes in her, and of my idea of what was perfect in a child. My new parenting bible was How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk to You by Faber and Mazlish. I read several books in the series. I remember in one of the workshops about the books that the authors quoted their mentor, Dr. Haim Ginott, as saying aim for 80%, or some number like that. If I remember correctly, the 80% was in reference to the time you should be the parent you envision – the “perfect” parent who uses the techniques flawlessly and is able to walk away when they don’t work.

The perfectionist in me, even as I was encouraging the members of the workshop to follow this rule, assumed that 80% was a minimum. 100% was achievable, and I would achieve it. Needless to say, it’s been eight years since that workshop, and it’s only been in the last two that I’ve realized that accepting and even encouraging the 20% failure in myself was every bit as important as achieving the 80% success. (Pick your own percentages that mean something to you.) That 20% failure frees us to open up to life with a sense of curiosity, play, and wonder, which will sustain us and help us avoid burnout. Without that aim of 20% failure, we take the easiest path to avoid it. 20% failure means that we are exploring and pushing boundaries. 80% success is enough to keep you living and 20% failure keeps you learning. We want to do this in our parenting, in life and in learning. We want our kids to do this too.

To me, J.K. Rowling said it best in her commencement speech at Harvard University.

“You might never fail on the scale I did, but some failure in life is inevitable. It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.

“Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.

“The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity. Such knowledge is a true gift, for all that it is painfully won, and it has been worth more than any qualification I ever earned.”

I’m still working on aiming for my 20% failure. It’s difficult for me. I fail at it at least 20% of the time. But I’m learning, and it’s helping. We have regular family discussions about our failures, and my kids are learning to be proud of their failures because it means that they tried something new or difficult. Part of my goal as a writer is to accept that my book may be 20% bad, but that 20% is what is going to make it mine.

So my message to you, wherever you are in life, is embrace failure. Learn to do this as early in life as possible. If you are a parent, let your kids fail. Let them see you survive your failures and help them survive theirs. It’s not easy, but it’s the most important lesson I’ve learned in recent years for my happiness and the happiness of everyone around me. It allowed me to stop and really focus on the tulips this Spring instead of worrying that our family vacation wasn’t 100% perfect. Also, if you look closely at this garden of tulips, I’ll bet around 20% of them would “fail” at being perfect. And yet, it’s still gorgeous and is perfect as a whole. Just like you! See, I knew I could bring it back to the tulips!

And if this blog post failed to mean anything to you, chalk it up to part of my 20%.

About Cheryl McCosh

I live and work in Houston with my husband, three kids, and two cats. I have two girls and a boy in the middle who is being well-trained in learning to ignore the drama and bossiness surrounding him. My children attend a public Montessori school, which we walk to and from every day rain or shine. When my children complain about walking in the rain, I sing "You will live" from Les Miserables. They've learned not to complain in public. I love singing, dancing, dreaming, and reading. I play about ten songs on the guitar decently and only play others for my children who tell me I make too much noise in general. I have a Ph.D. and a Masters in Computer Science from Rice University and a Bachelors in Mathematics from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Go Heels!). I write Young Adult fiction and I'm attempting a blog for the first time.

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