Failure, Ease, and Work that’s Worth It

I found some childhood art and was reminded of some ugly truths about myself.

I listened to the first episode of the Renegades: Born in the USA podcast this morning, which is an excellent series of conversations between Bruce Springsteen and Barack Obama, and they said something that caught my attention. Obama observed that his first impression of Springsteen in 2008 was that the rock star seemed a bit… shy.

Springsteen wasn’t surprised. In fact, it made a lot of sense, and he elaborated on the inherent shyness of those who seek to express themselves:

I don’t know if I would say that’s most people in my business, but the shyness is not unusual. If you weren’t quiet, you wouldn’t have so desperately searched or a way to speak. The reason you have so desperately pursued your work and your language and your voice is because you haven’t had one. And you understand, you realize that, and you feel the pain of being somewhat voiceless, you know?

I’m the farthest thing from a rock star but this speaks to me. I was a shy kid. My imagination was big, though, and this meant I had so many thoughts, so many pictures in my head and struggled to communicate them. Being misunderstood is a fear that dogs me. A way with words may be the only valuable skill I possess, and whenever I misspeak or am misunderstood it provokes a crisis — this is the one thing, and I can’t even hack it.

What I mean, of course, is that I’m not perfect, and I’m not sure there’s anything more upsetting than that.

Another wrinkle in the dynamic Springsteen describes is the quiet pride of shy people. A spiritual mentor in university once told me that destructive forms of pride can manifest as a desire to take centre stage, but also as the quiet refusal to take responsibility, to accept risk. This staggered me because it exposed my heart. My aversion to risk, with or without a spotlight, was grounded firmly in the fear of failure. I desperately wanted to maintain an image of competence, and I still do.

It seems likely to me now that my jealous guarding of my competent image has produced all kinds of incompetence.

I want to be published more widely but fear the rejection of my pitches. I want to develop manual skills and hobbies, like gardening and knitting, but fall apart when I encounter difficulty. At 31, I’m far less timid and frozen with fear as I was at 21, but that fear, rooted deeply in my pride, still shows up. I was reminded of its presence this week by two unrelated events: a rather unexpected bout of crying and seeing some of my childhood drawings.

In the year 2000, I apparently told my mother that I couldn’t draw. If memory serves, it was an accurate statement. Evidently, I was disappointed by this lack of talent, so my mother signed me up for art classes. My clearest memory of these classes was that I hated them. I was no good and it was too hard; I didn’t like it. While video-chatting with my parents recently, they had some fun showing me old school projects. Then the big black art portfolio that lived behind my old bedroom door came out. “Oh no,” I said. “That stupid penguin!”

That stupid penguin, c. 2000

It wasn’t just the penguin, though. There were half a dozen charcoal sketches covered in pastel. I remembered how I had to draw those silly circles and lines that looked nothing like a penguin, in order to get that penguin. I thought that was stupid — why couldn’t I just draw and have a great proud penguin produce itself on the page? I still think my penguin looks pretty dumb. It’s the other drawings that surprised me.

They’re not exactly good, but they’re all better than that first penguin.

Today, I could not reproduce any of those pictures. They were the products of hard work that I begrudgingly undertook and have not kept up. Today, I still cannot draw, not with the magical ease that I often imagine is how other people’s talent manifests itself. But I couldn’t draw before those classes either. It was the work, unglamorous and unwanted, that produced that fairly badass dinosaur and oddly shaped shark. I still don’t want to put in the work; I resent it, and it shames me to say so.

Without a natural talent for drawing, I was forced to practice the skills (those silly sketch circles I thought “real drawers” didn’t use). But even where natural talent exists, I struggle to make peace with difficulty and accept the risk of failure. If the words aren’t coming, I don’t want to write. Why? I think it’s because I want to preserve an aura of competence, even just for myself. And competence means ease in my mind, which is an unhelpful pairing when trying to do something as fraught as writing on the internet.

So, I fear failure, maybe even the mere scent of it. I doubt I’m alone in carrying this terror around inside me, but I'm putting it down in writing here. Hopefully it’ll serve to keep me accountable and act as a public reminder that, sometimes, risk is its own reward.

It’s possible I’m working through some stuff here. It’s even more likely I have some repenting to do. Thank you for sitting through this confession.

Want to help? You can spread good words by sharing this post with a friend or support the work by subscribing (there's a free option). It's also possible to buy me a beer.

Subscribe to Matt Civico

Don’t miss out on the latest issues. Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.