This past week, I taught my niece how to ride a bike—it was awesome, but also a little terrible. For her.
If it’s been a while since you first took to the road on two wheels, then you’ve likely forgotten how treacherously difficult it is to learn.
There’s that throb of stomach-churning fear because you know you’re going to fall at some point, maybe at several points. And you know you’re going to fall because that’s just part and parcel with the experience of learning to ride. Moreover, when you fall, you know it’s going to hurt, how could it not? Falling hurts. Add to that the fact that my niece is a little older than your typical beginner bicyclist—thirteen—and you can then factor in embarrassment and social fear to the equation. The fear of looking stupid or feeling stupid in front of others.
Like that dreamy boy, who happens to live down the street … the one my niece thinks is the absolute bees-knees.
And the worse part is, she did look stupid. Totally and completely lame-o.
First, I bundled her up in military-grade Blackhawk knee and elbow pads, which were comically too big for her, but hey if you’re going to fall you want to have the right gear to fall in. Second, she had to appear in public with me, which is always a little embarrassing. There she is, a thirteen-year-old at the height of cool (in her mind), awkwardly peddling down the road while her weird uncle runs along beside her, flip-flops smacking the asphalt with every step. She was mortified. Understandably so.
On more than one occasion, she wanted to quit. She said, “I’m never gonna get this. This is stupid. Why did I even want to learn to ride in the first place? I hate this. I want to give up.”
But—and this is key—she didn’t quit. In part because of my encouragement, but really that was only a small part. Mostly, she didn’t give up because she realized the benefit of success far outweighed the risks and hazards of learning.
With that in mind, she kept on keeping on until she was rolling down the blacktop all on her own, feeling the wind rush over her skin and wash through her hair. She giggled when she was riding, really riding, for the first time, and when she finally hopped off the bike, which was a smidge too big for her, she giggled and gave me a high-five, not caring who saw.
Now this might sound like a stupid post about a skill most of us mastered ages ago, but it did get me thinking about dreams and about doing tough things—things that hurt, that cause us to fall and bleed, that cause us fear and embarrassment—or not doing them, as is often the case for people.
I think my thirteen-year-old niece has a lot to teach us through her youthful, tenacious spirit.
She displayed a trait that most children have—the ability to set your sights on a thing and go for it—but which is slowly beaten out of us as we age. When you’re a kid, you can be anything. You can be president or an astronaut or a firefighter or whatever the hell you want to be. Kids are dreamers. As you grow, however, those dreams are broken; smashed to pieces like the fragile things they are. You learn about the tragic realities of generational poverty. You realize you’ll never make the NBA at 5’1”. You realize you don’t have good enough grades to be an astronaut. Maybe some well-meaning teacher or friend tells you you’re not a good enough singer to be in the band. Maybe a literary agent sends you a rejection letter, saying your book isn’t good (or at least isn’t right for them).
Whatever. Life happens. Life is often cruel.
As adults it isn’t that we stop dreaming; all of us still want things—we want to write that book, play that guitar, get that dream job or go back for that diploma—yet the adult world has a weird way of crushing those silly fantasies before we ever even think about getting on the bike. The adult world reminds us through a myriad of ways that dreams are nice, but ultimately impractical and that the benefits of success absolutely do not outweigh the risks and hazards in the doing.
What if you fail?… *Gasp*
What if you get hurt?… *Shudder*
What if you lose your job?… *Melodramatic cry*
What if respectable people think less of you?… *Curl into fetal position*
What if you disappoint your parents or your wife or your kids?… *Full body seizure*
What if you can’t hack it?… *Jump off a bridge in despair*
Failure is the enemy. Failure is unacceptable. Failure is shameful. Bad. Evil. It devalues your worth as a person.
So, we are convinced it’s better to not get on the bike at all. Better to not even try, then to try and fail and maybe look stupid while we fail.
Some people do try, but trying always comes with a price-tag. If you try you will fail. Guaranteed. Like learning to ride a bike, you will fall and that fall will hurt. It might hurt a a little or it might hurt a lot, but it will hurt one way or another. After falling a few times, many people simply walk away from their dreams, muttering, “I’m never gonna get this. This is stupid. Why did I even want to learn to do this in the first place? I hate this. I want to give up.” Many do give up. Most even. They give up because its hard and failure is taboo: you’d better not even think about singing unless you’ve got American-Idol-level chops.
This, though, is all complete and utter bullshit.
I’m here to tell you folks, that failure is not your enemy and that failure is not bad. Failure is learning. When we try new things, hard things, worthwhile things, we’re going to fail and fail and fail, but each time you’re going to fail a little better. It took quite a while for my niece to get it right, and she stumbled an awful lot leading up to success, but the more she tried the better she failed. And that’s how things work, dreams included.
So, on that note, I want to offer you a little encouragement:
In my experience, the most worthwhile things in life are not easy. They require a visceral dedication and an understanding that you’re going to fall, going to fail, going to be embarrassed, and that even after all of that you still may not succeed. The thing about dreams, though, is that it isn’t so much about obtaining the thing—the destination—as it is about the journey. The journey of pursuing, the thrill of learning, the grit and fortitude it takes to hit the ground hard, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start again is its own reward.
And, who knows, one day, somewhere down that dusty road, maybe you’ll catch your dream … If you stay the course and do the hard things, you probably will.
But only if you start and only if you don’t quit. So instead of pining away for what could’ve been, formulate a plan with real, concrete action steps, then get busy. Set your alarm, pull your ass out of bed an hour early, and go for that run, or start writing that novel, or pick up that guitar. Set some goals and learn to ride that bike.