Relearning the Art of Failure by Observing a Toddler
Updated: Jul 13
I watch my two-year-old fall off a plastic stump at the playground. I brace myself to get up from the park bench to comfort him and help him up, but to my surprise, he whines for a second, climbs back up on the stump, and tries to balance again. I’m impressed when he stands up, balances, and successfully climbs back down from the stump, but I’m more impressed that he attempted to accomplish this feat after a fall.
He teaches me something about the art of failure in this moment—something I’ve known, but am not always so bold to practice. He teaches, or rather reminds me, that in order to advance in a skillset, I have to be willing to fall. Only through falling and getting back up can I come to a place of mastery, or at least adequacy.
I never once thought of my son, “He is so unskilled. Why would he even attempt to balance on this stump and get back down without falling again? He’s obviously just going to fall again.” Of course, I know that he’s a toddler and it takes time and experience to learn new skills.
Yet when I consider my own writing career, I often find myself thinking that I haven’t made it to where I want to be yet because “I’m just not good enough.”
Maybe I think too highly of myself—that as someone who’s pursued writing since she was in fourth grade and has two master’s degrees, one of them related to writing, I ought to be further along. I cannot stoop down to the level of a toddler where I’m tripping over basic grammar or running into simplistic sentences. In my cautiousness and pride, do I lack the willingness to fall? Or am I willing to fall over bigger milestones, like pitching and publishing, and deficient in humility to fall over the smaller things, like writing lots of bad pieces and playing around with my work?
Maybe I think too lowly of myself—that I am further along than I think I am, but my lack of confidence in my abilities hinders me from further movement. Am I like a toddler who has learned to walk but continues to crawl? Or learns to run yet fears the quickness of my legs beneath me?
Whatever the case may be, I cannot achieve adequacy, sufficiency, or mastery if I continue to fear scraping my knees. I must carry with me the boldness of my son on that plastic stump, accepting the anxiety of anticipation, the risk of harm, and the fear of failure, paired with the knowledge that every fall is not without purpose.
Every time my son slips and falls, runs into something, or bumps his head, he grows more aware of the bodily and mental feeling of balance and boundaries. He gains the physical and mental skills associated with running, climbing, and jumping in different contexts and environments. He also learns what I, as an adult, relearn as I watch him explore: the art of failure, the beauty of a willingness to fall and fail as a natural step to growth. The process of falling and getting back up again is a time-tested human phenomenon that always leads to some sort of transformation, whether it results in famous success or ordinary, incremental progress.
And here I am at the end of my reflection terrified to write an ending. I’m scared to write something that I have to change, scared to write options for an ending, scared to write an ending that falls flat.
Yet even here, emotionally undressed in the exposing space of the internet, I choose to push past paralysis, to fall if I may, and hope that I will fall into grace, into growth, and, of utmost importance, into deeper humility.