Life Lessons or Failures?
Do you recall your biggest mistake? Your greatest failure? How did it impact you and what knowledge did you gain from it? How did you react? What would you do differently now?
In life, our biggest failures can often lead to our greatest triumphs. We tell ourselves, if I hadn’t made that mistake or if a particular event hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be who I am now. I wouldn’t have what I have or know what I know. If not for this, I would be a different person entirely.
Everyone has these thoughts
All of us can look back and say, “if I hadn’t done that…” Sometimes we say it with regret, sometimes with wonder, grief or gratitude, but we all have decisions or choices we’ve made in the past that influence who we’ve become.
These choices are turning points, the watershed moments in life. They are the “roads less travelled”, and at the time, we may be oblivious to the long-term effects they will have on our lives. If we knew then what we know now, maybe we would have turned aside, or doubled down, scaled up, or chosen a completely different direction.
Life Lessons: Mistake = Failure = Wrong = Pain
Somewhere between infancy and adulthood, we learn to accept as truth – mistakes are failures and failures are wrong, to be avoided at all costs. Watch a baby when he’s learning to walk. Every time he falls down, he gets up and tries again. There may be tears, but he perseveres. But as we grow up, somewhere along the line, we learn to fear.
We fear looking foolish, we fear feeling stupid, we fear failing. Worse, we’ve learned to make ourselves wrong, thinking we’re somehow inferior or just plain dumb.
For pete’s sake, we even learn to fear success, because hey, it might mean we have to change, to grow or learn something new and that’s hard. Harder than staying the same, ‘cause we’ve mastered that. We already know how to do it, no matter how hard it makes our lives. Stay broke, live with a toxic person, don’t leave the job we hate. Better the devil you know, right?
Ignorance Is Not Stupidity
Not knowing something, particularly something that “everyone else” knows, is not stupidity. It’s merely ignorance, a situation which can be remedied. We may have a mental block about a particular subject or situation because we’ve been told that we’re “not good at it” or “don’t have that kind of mind”. As a working artist, I heard it all the time from clients and even students. They would say (and believe) that ”I can’t draw a straight line.” And yet, when those people had the right training, they often amazed themselves with their new-found drawing ability, once they were shown how it’s done. Learning any new skill takes time, perseverance and practice. And the desire to learn.
Lies and Emotional Wounds
These painful self-evaluations are absorbed from all sorts of influences. Maybe it was a thoughtless remark by a teacher, mentor or well-meaning parent, maybe you were bullied by your so-called friends. However it happened, at some point, you accepted as true a lie that crippled your confidence in some area of your life. An emotional wound that changed the way you see the world.
All of us have them. We call them life lessons, blind spots, foibles, paranoia, blocks, phobias. We all have areas in our own lives where we don’t feel capable. These emotional wounds hold us back. They’re the “Big Lie” that fictional heroes must overcome in order to vanquish the evil villain or save the world.
How to Use Them
In fiction, the character must first recognize this lie, this emotional trauma, and then find a way to get past it, by changing the way he sees the world.
In memoir, recognizing your own Big Lie(s) can give you the key to discovering the theme upon which you build your entire story. The field of memoir is full of real-life tales about people who overcame massive obstacles to turn their lives around, once they recognized the limitations that were holding them back.
For me, it’s often about finishing things. My lie is: “I never finish anything ‘cause it’s not good enough yet,” which leads to overwhelming procrastination. A corollary of this is: “I can’t do this until”…until I have more time, more money, more confidence, or until something else is finished first, but I can’t finish that because “it’s not good enough.”
You see how this could prevent me, as the hero of my own life, from accomplishing great goals? But by continually asking “why”, I finally realized that I was still trying to please my demanding grandfather who’s been dead for over fifty years! My lie had been formulated when I was a child of five! He was a very accomplished man, a doctor, and somewhat impatient. On one occasion, I’d been trying to butter a piece of toast, but he couldn’t stand my clumsiness and did it for me. With enough repetition of similar situations, I learned to believe “I’m not good enough.
Everyone’s specific fears are different, but to some extent, they come down to a few basic ones: abandonment, loss, inadequacy or lack of security…all the stories a child believes about himself and his life, particularly when he learns to compare himself with others.
Uncovering Your Lies – Exercises:
- Take some time to do a little introspection. Look for situations that make you uncomfortable or that you avoid. Notice the thoughts you have and the words you say to yourself when you make choices and decisions. For example, doing a favour for a friend: Do you want to do it or not? If, deep down, the answer is “no” but you do it anyway, look for the underlying reason. Maybe you fear abandonment or loss, have a feeling of being somehow not good enough. Maybe you feel you have to prove yourself, or overcompensate so people won’t see your worthlessness.
2. Start writing a list of all the things you think you’re not good at. Not just skills, but all the negative things you’ve always believed about yourself, things you wish you could be or do differently, bad habits, negative self-talk and petty prejudices. At some point, usually in childhood, you decided that that these lies were absolute unalterable truth. Don’t you think it’s time to look at them again from the perception of a mature adult and change your point of view?
3. Try to identify and re-evaluate these emotional wounds so you can use them to gain clarity into your motivations and actions now that you can recognize them for the untruths they are. They will make your memoir infinitely more powerful and relatable when you know precisely why you behaved as you did.
What were your greatest mistakes and what did you learn from them? Try to locate your point of greatest fear.
That’s your Big Lie.
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
― Robert Frost
Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening