Struggle versus Failure

Struggle Versus Failure

A friend of mine, (a highly accomplished and ridiculously successful surgeon, ultra-runner, and military officer), recently confessed, regarding her overtaxed schedule “it just feels like I am trying to do everything and failing at it all.”

It wasn’t that her days were packed or even that she was exhausted all the time (real, but separate concerns), it was that she felt that she didn’t have the time to excel or succeed at anything.

I hear the same from my friends with kids, and see it all the time on social media. We feel like we’re failing when we extend screen time for just a few extra minutes of sleep.

We consider it a fail when dinner is chicken nuggets, again, instead of some gourmet organic kid-friendly veggie bake. We feel like we’re failing when we go to sleep every night exhausted, frustrated, and dirty.

Everywhere we turn we see someone else doing more, better, and before we’ve even woken up. We feel like we’re failing.

But maybe we’re not failing. Maybe we’re just struggling.

We’ve seemed to have confused the two. Maybe because in today’s society, it’s not enough for women to succeed, we must exceed. And when we exceed we must do so effortlessly. We must win without trying.

We see this on social media all the time with women with flawless skin and perfect hair, sipping their Starbucks with the caption “hot mess express.” No hate ladies, I love your hair and I love Starbucks, but let’s be honest, you’re not a “hot mess,” you’re a warm handcrafted mug of slightly imperfect artisan tea.

If we aren’t perfect, we consider ourselves failures. And when we do succeed, among other reasons, we downplay our achievements. 

Big or small, we humbly, demurely dismiss that incredible apple tart or smashing presentation as “nothing.”

We do this, I suspect in part because we’re not supposed to acknowledge how much work it took to get there. We’re supposed to be able to endure, power through, adapt, and tap into our grit – but we’re not supposed to look gritty.

I heard someone explain this “win without trying” appeal once in describing why people hate Anne Hathaway (yeah that’s a thing). The commentator argued that it was because Anne seemed “too eager, too earnest” and that she “tried too hard.”

I’ve heard the same criticisms levied against Taylor Swift and other female stars that don’t seem to effortlessly glide through life’s successes. We only love an underdog if they’re male. If they’re not, all we see is a messy bitch.

Our society doesn’t like women who fail, and we don’t like women who struggle to succeed.

But we all struggle.

We fall, fail, and fumble our way through academics, the office, and the nursery. We train and we try and occasionally we crush it. Shouldn’t we embrace the entire journey?

Shouldn’t we show each other, and more importantly, our children how to struggle?

Angela Duckworth writes about this phenomenon in young girls in her book Grit. She cites a computer camp in which young programmers are given a coding project.

When the facilitator checked in on one young camper late in the day, she saw a blank screen. When asked, the young girl said she hadn’t made any progress towards solving the problem.

When the facilitator pulled up the document history, however, she saw a great deal of work. The girl had simply deleted it.

It wasn’t that the girl had not “made any progress,” it was that she hadn’t succeeded in finding the correct answer, and to her, not finding the correct answer was failing, and that failure negated an entire day’s work.

But she didn’t fail, the camp wasn’t over and the goal of the project was to teach young people how to code. She didn’t fail, she had simply struggled. She had made progress, because progress isn’t linear.

She maybe hadn’t achieved the goal of solving the problem, but often goals are only secondary to the journey, the struggle to achieve them.

As an ultrarunner, and a Marine, I’ve learned the value of struggling, learned to embrace it, settle into it, and even celebrate it.

No one wins a marathon and turns around and says “that was easy.” Or if they do, no one cares – because what’s more impressive, more admirable – winning without trying? Or seeing someone work and dig and try? No one cries at Rudy because he was a naturally gifted athlete.

Ladies, it’s time we give, and get, the Rudy treatment. It’s time we acknowledge, accept, and celebrate the struggles, not just the wins of motherhood. It’s time we see them for what they are, not shortcomings or failures, but as rich, diverse experiences that help us learn, grow, and connect to each other in more meaningful ways.

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