Growing from failure

June 24, 2024

Running head-on into barbed wire taught me a thing or two.

I was visiting my uncle's "hacienda," or ranch, deep in the Venezuelan llano. The place was little more than a rickety house next to a dirt path, yet it had a unique charm. My uncle, a hobbyist flyer, had built a home-spun dirt runway to land his plane. Touching down was terrifying; you had no idea where the "runway" began or ended. The house stood next to a septic tank turned pool, with hairy algae growing at the bottom. We didn't care about the plants. My cousins and I would spend hours roughhousing in that "pool," getting out only when we'd realized we'd forgotten to eat anything.

During one of those hunger pangs, someone had the brilliant idea to carve bows and arrows out of sticks. Naturally, grumpy from the malnourishment, things escalated quickly. Before you knew it, we did our best to impale each other with our half-finished arrows. I was running away from the onslaught when I decided to turn back one last time. That's when I hit the four-foot-tall barbed-wire fence. Luckily, it was old and ill-kept. Still, it felt like hugging a porcupine.

The pain and embarrassment of hitting the barbed wire had a lasting effect on me. On the cusp of my escape, I stopped thinking about where I wanted to go and started thinking about where I had been.

The memory of crashing into that fence is a visceral reminder of the dangers of looking back and self-doubt.

The person who best knows how to wield your weaknesses is you. For the rest of the world, you can paint over failures and describe even the most minute tasks as "optimizations" and "enhancements". But there is no running away from your self-doubt. Once it finds you it binds to your consciousness, like an Illithid tadpole biding its time and hatching at its earliest convenience, twisting your mind so that everything you do you perceive as imperfect and sub-par. Self-doubt is an extension of self-loathing. It is painful, corrosive, and debilitating.

Paradoxically, I've found the best way to counter self-doubt is to fail. Hard. Only then does the fear of your inadequacy subside, giving way to the fact that reality is far less scary than what you imagined it to be. You fell but it didn't hurt as much as the fear of falling.

The first time I spoke at a conference was like this. I'd done my fair share of public speaking in the past, but never on a technical topic and never in front of so many people. I shook for the better part of a quarter-hour in a green room filled with personal heroes, people I aspired to be like. "How could I possibly belong here?", I thought. But then something unexpected happened; I noticed most of the speakers were just as nervous as I was. Sweaty, quiet, and pacing, they were confronting likely the same horrifying thought that I was, "What if I fail?" I look back at that talk and I can tell just how nervous I was. I didn't look up from the speaker notes enough, I was too serious, I spoke too quickly, etc. But in the end, none of it mattered. What mattered was that I got it done, I learned from it, and I got better.

Conquering fear feels like smelling a sweet childhood memory; the way the air smelled when the early dawn breeze blew the mango leaves off the trees or the smokey residue left by my grandfather's pipe, billowing around as he turned on his film projector. The kind where for a brief moment all the world was at your feet, and all you had to do was decide what to do with the time that was given to you.

Removing self-doubt is consciously remembering who you are and not sacrificing who you want to be. Tackling it in this way is not without risk. You are opting into a state of extreme vulnerability with a high chance of failure. You are inviting the world to judge you on something new and precious. At times it will all be too much and you will fail, publicly, and possibly permanently at something. That is when you need to find the will to believe. Believe that from this pain you will learn, improve, and be better.

Sometimes you run headfirst through the barbed-wire fence. Odds are you won't do it twice.