Asians seem to have an extreme and fatalistic relationship with failure. We learn from childhood that failure is catastrophic and shameful. It shows in the student suicide rates in China, Korea, Japan, and Singapore, happening even with children under 12, always spiking around examination periods in the academic calendar.
The didactic stories in “Moral Education” class in my time (I have no doubt they still exist) delighted in underlining how important it was to be a good student and listen to one’s parents and teachers. After all, They Always Know Best[tm]. To fail or to slack off was to let down your parents, who gave you life!, and your entire ancestral line. (Fuck you, Confucius, for making guilt, obligation and conditional love from one’s own parents central to Chinese culture.)
Good little Asian students, brow-beaten into the belief system that exam grades determine their worth, if they managed not to kill themselves, ultimately enter adulthood transferring the measure of their worth to their career.
We were never taught that there is life beyond failing. We weren’t even supposed to be happy with “good enough”. The moral stories were always about persevering until we had outstanding outward success. They were (and still are) reinforced by educators and tiger parents.
I know this fear of failure is universal, whether one grew up with an Asian education or not. But this is my blog entry venturing that most Asian societies are so mired in this anxiety that the bulk of the population can’t see it’s there. They may have even more trouble fathoming why it’s so strong, and ten times more difficulty realising that there’s no changing society until they themselves grapple with failure and their fear of it.
Old moral stories can be too strong sometimes. I like when old stories are rewritten with more nuance and compassion. But some conditioning is so strong, the only stronger power is brutal experience.
Those who go through the dark time of the soul will experience failure in one way or another. Sometimes, over and over again. It requires a form of surrender, a release of other people’s expectations upon you, a rejection of other people’s definitions of success. It asks for unconditional self-love. Without a model to follow (depending on one’s upbringing), this task can be excruciatingly hard.
But once you’ve made friends with failure, even coming out the other side of self-hate, judging others for their so-called failures is revealed as a colossal distraction and waste of time. (Exception: Policy makers, who should be accountable for the policies they enact. Especially f*%king education policies.)
Bonus points if you spot that the fear may be more deeply rooted in societies with little or no social safety net. Singapore’s one of them. Here, some consequences of failure can be devastating.
The more fear there is in a society, the more manipulation there is, too. And there is that.
Sometime in the last few years, I found I could temper my idealistic activism and anger at society by looking at the people who formed it, myself included. I had more conversations with more people. More authenticity and awkwardness, but also awareness of what I knew and what I didn’t, and what I could do to address the imbalances… sometimes.
Fear was the wall and the block that would come up repeatedly. Fear of lack, fear of responsibility or irresponsibility, fear of rejection, abandonment, uncertainty, disappointment, hurt; always one thing or another. And I knew it was visceral. I could deal with my own most of the time, but the most I could do for other people was to observe it. Sometimes, if there was nothing to lose, I’d point it out. Or, if I thought they could answer it themselves:
What are you afraid of?
It’s a loaded question. “I’m afraid I’ll fail” is common, but the answer never really matters. Because the follow-up question is:
What if you already failed? What if your worst fears had already come true? What would you do?
In the face of these questions, the energy that was usually tied up in denying and running away from failure just drops. A space is opened in which one can stop running or blocking themselves from their next step beyond fear.
In the Space of the Worst “What If”
Ironically, in this space of failure, real or imagined, that most of us try so hard to avoid, movement is allowed. “What next?” is allowed.
So, grasshopper, what if you fail?
—If I fail, I’ll have to face anger, disappointment, and humiliation.
(No lie; it’s hard. Your ego will take a beating but you’ll live.)
—If I fail, I’ll need to ask for help.
—If I fail, I’ll let people down.
(Maybe. But they’ll deal with it: their disappointment or their own demons. Let them. Face your own.)
—If I fail, I’ll get hurt.
(It sucks, and healing will take time, but you’ll get up again.)
And deep deep deeper underneath all, you may find the tiny voice that whispers, “If you fail, you’ll still be Loved.” (And it is very right.)
Discovering that you may be OK if you fail is allowed. Discovering that you’re prepared to fail is allowed. Some mistakes may be worth making. Some experiences need to be lived through, and there’s a part of us that knows that.
The worst self-sabotage may be the delusion that failure is the end of everything. Is continued desperate avoidance really better than defeat? I now ask this question more often than I used to.
We can fool ourselves that we’re better off staying safe, but if we keep wondering about the path not taken, we may already be on the wrong one.
Some failures are worth it. If this statement resonates, then it’s a good sign to try, try again, releasing our attachment to success or failure.
It’s not often said, but sometimes this is the most difficult but necessary step in powerful manifestation.
Have a good 2018.