Stop Fearing Failure
Wisdom from Julia Child, David McCullough, and Ted Williams
“If we should fail?”
But screw your courage to the sticking-place,
And we’ll not fail.” — William Shakespeare, 1606 (Macbeth)
We find her at a crossroads, as her husband Paul has been recalled from diplomatic service in Europe, and the two return to America and settle in Cambridge. The series follows her debut on television and the struggles with more traditional-minded executives to create the show she wanted.
In doing so, she’s creating something brand new — a new genre of television. There was no playbook, no set of standards. It could be a flop or a major success.
But Julia was fearless. Fearless in the same way she was in the kitchen.
Over time, one of her hallmarks was the mistakes she’d make on camera; her show was live-to-tape, meaning there weren’t parts edited out after she finished recording. She powered through for a half-hour, mistakes and all.
And there’s a lesson there.
In this clip from her PBS show, Julia Child takes us to task for what she calls “the awful American syndrome of fear of failure,” and provides some advice not just for leaders, but for anyone:
“If you’re going to have a sense of fear of failure, you’re just never going to learn how to cook. Because cooking is, well, lots of it. It’s one failure after another and that’s how you finally learn.”
There’s so much wisdom there. From a cooking show, no less.
It reminds me of another bit of wisdom I came across lately — also on HBO Max (don’t take me for a couch potato; I looked this up after David McCullough’s death).
Not only was McCullough a gifted writer, but he was also a painter. He began painting while in college and found it a valuable outlet for many years.
But he couldn’t learn how to paint simply by watching others.
“The great thing about the arts is that you can only learn by doing it. You can’t learn how to play the piano by reading a book about how to play the piano. You can’t learn to paint without painting. You have to do it.” — David McCullough, 2008
Anything we choose to pursue requires us to practice.
We will all fail on our journey to excellence. It’s part of what it means to be human.
Along the way, we’ll accumulate scars: scraped knees from learning to ride a bike, the burning embarrassment of fumbling a ball in front of a crowd, or the horror of dropping a carefully-prepared dish at a dinner party.
But think about those situations. You don’t retain the failure as much as you do the success.
Do you remember the injured knee? No, you remember the triumph of riding down the sidewalk without training wheels or a parent steadying you.
Do you keep the terrible play at the top of your mind? No, you return to the touchdowns.
Do you replay the meal splattering all over the kitchen? No, you recall the delicious meals and conversations that have taken place around your table.
“I think without question the hardest single thing to do in a sport is to hit a baseball. A .300 hitter, that rarest of breeds these days, goes through life with the certainty that he will fail at his job seven out of ten times.” — Ted Williams, 1969
So why run from failure?
The real fear should be the fear of not trying at all.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.
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