Braver/Wiser: A Weekly Message of Courage and Compassion

Learning How to Fail

By Christine Slocum

"Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising every time we fail."

The first thing they teach you in Brazilian jiu-jitsu is how to fall, or so I’m told. I’ve never tried it. You roll backwards and slap the ground with one or both hands, depending on how you land. The idea is to disperse energy through your arm and the rolling motion instead of hurting yourself with an abrupt impact. Then you get back up. It's easier to try if you know how to fail.

A close up of two competitors, mid-match, at the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Shinbun Championship (2017).

How do we strategize failure? Mostly? We avoid it. Failure is painful. It always costs something: money, opportunity, relationships, respect, etc. Add to that stigma because our society has a nasty habit of transferring the evaluation of circumstances to the evaluation of the worth of the people experiencing them.

Ugh. I'd rather not. I'd rather insulate myself with a cushion of backup plans. What if I failed? It feels so threatening. Risk aversion and perfectionism are hallmarks of white American culture and I am, in fact, white. White supremacy culture tells me that I’m only "good" if I’m perfect, treating all falls as hard stops.

I initially chose a very institutional, predictable occupation: academia. I spent a couple years being the square peg in the round hole. It felt safe. I stayed with it longer than I should have for fear that anything else was a failure. Eventually, sitting in my cubicle, it occurred to me: I don't have to do this. I could fail by those metrics and do other things with my life and it would be okay. Quitting graduate school felt like jumping off a professional cliff into an abyss. What was afterwards? Would my career be okay? I had no idea. I couldn't do it until I was willing to risk failure. Now I have a meaningful job serving my community. I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t fail first.

We can avoid failure or try and roll with whatever the consequences are, trusting we're worthy all the same. I am learning how to hit the metaphorical ground in such a way to get back up. I wish I’d learned that first.


May we have peace with our failures, and the bravery to keep trying.