Willing to Fail

Amanda Poppei
January 31, 2024

By Amanda Poppei

“We are all failures—at least the best of us are.”
—J.M. Barrie

There’s a sign hanging in my therapist’s office that says, “What would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”

I know it’s supposed to be inspiring, to encourage people to try for their dreams. But I’ve always found it a little silly. I mean, of COURSE you’d do all kinds of things if you were guaranteed to succeed at them. Picture me: running my own TV show as the latest spiritually-grounded national expert on…well, just about anything, I suppose, since I couldn’t fail.

Lately, I’ve been thinking instead about what I could do, maybe must do, even though I know I could fail.

This came home to me the other day when I was lifting weights. That week, we were trying for a PR—a “personal record,” basically the most weight you’ve ever lifted in that particular way. I had plateaued the last few times we tried, lifting the same weight even though I knew logically I had been getting stronger. Finally, the coach came over and told me to add some more plates on, to make the weight bar heavier.

“But I don’t think I can do that much!”

“That’s the point!” she told me. “You’ll never know how much you can do until you figure out what you can’t do.”

Something clicked. I added the extra plates. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to lift it—but I was newly willing to try and fail.

I set that personal record. I added more plates, and set another personal record. Then I added still more plates…and couldn’t get the bar off the ground. That final fail helped me know I had actually hit my limit. It helped me understand more completely my own strength.

I’m pretty sure that taking a sharpie to signs in your therapist’s office is frowned upon, so I’ll let it be. But if I could, I think I’d substitute the question: “What can you do only if you’re willing to fail?”

Prayer

Spirit of life and love, God of many names, help me to fail. Remind me that success is not the only measure of a life. Remind me of the power of holy risk, of sacred gambles. Help me to fail, and wrap me in soft care when I do.