Rojo Speaks: February 10th, 2001
I Failed! So What?????
Well February 6th, 2001 came and went this week with little fanfare. An uneventful Tuesday for most people that probably was indistinguishable from all the other weekdays that tend to blend together over time.
However, for me, the day had special significance. It marked the one year anniversary of my failure to qualify for the 2000 US Olympic Trials. On February 6th, 2000, in my last shot at qualifying for the 2000 Trials, I ran a 2:23:11 marathon in Las Vegas, agonizing close to the magical 2:22:00 cutoff, but not good enough. I had failed.
Now, I'm sure a lot of people who know me well who are reading this are thinking to themselves, "Don't be ridiculous. How can you say you "failed"? Don't be so harsh on yourself. You went from being little more than a jogger to almost an Olympic Trials participant in just 2.5 years and should be proud for you ran a 5 minute p.r. at Las Vegas."
All of the above things indeed are true. However, I feel no shame in saying that I failed a year ago in Las Vegas. In fact, I take pride in saying that I failed because the one thing I've become most distressed about in my first year as a school teacher this year is the way everyone's egos in America are being artificially inflated.
Too many people think by just by showing up that they deserve to be praised. It starts when children are very young. Nowadays, all of the kids in youth soccer leagues receive trophies or medals just for showing up. Society is saying to them, "You all are winners" even if your team lost every game all season long.
Sadly, I think this idea has extreme negative consequences. An important part of life is being able to deal with setbacks and failures. Very often, despite our best intentions, things don't go the way we'd like them to.
People thus need to learn that disappointment is a natural part of life that people can live with and even learn from (this concept is explored at length in the great book on the mental side of running, Running Within, that I'm currently reading).
There is no shame in failing. The key is realizing that to there is a difference between failing at an individual task and being a failure. Failing and being a failure are definitely not one in the same.
However, too many people in American society today are being taught that there is no such thing as failing at anything. Everyone is a winner no matter what they do or don't actually accomplish. As a result, there are a lot of kids at school who don't know how to react when I give them a bad grade if they studied for a test regardless of whether or not they actually know mathematics.
The problem is they haven't learned how to distinguish between failing at an individual task and being a failure, because society has told them they are always winners, which isn't reality.
Back to my running example, sure I didn't qualify for the 2000 US Olympic Trials. I failed to accomplish my #1 running goal, but so what? I don't feel any shame. I actually feel a great deal of pride.
Why? Because I tried. I took a risk and that's all that's really important.
Nothing is accomplished in life without taking risks. Too often people, including myself, are so fearful of failure that they don't even try. But by not even trying, however, they are failing. They don't accomplish anything, but they do get to take solace in the fact that their ego was saved from having to put forth effort and then come up short.
This was the situation I found myself in September of 1997. Years of injuries had sidelined my running career starting in 10th grade. However, I was finally healthy. Would I actually go for it and try to achieve? Or do what I had been doing for the previous eight years which was watch my identical twin accomplish great things while running and think too myself, "Oh, I used to beat him. I could do that. It's too bad I got hurt."
Initially it was injuries that sidelined me and kept me from running, but over time, I think the fear of failure became an equal or even greater impediment. I feared starting training again because I wouldn't be any good initially and it might be a bit embarrassing considering the fast circle of friends that surrounded me. I remember one summer when I thought I was getting healthy in college thinking, "Do I really want to do this? I'll be on the JV at first and then what if I don't end up being any good in the end."
I finally realized that I could either keep making excuses or really go for it. Thus on Labor Day 1997, I started my competitive running career again after a long hiatus. I decided I'd do everything possible for one year to make myself into a real runner. Included in my commitment was not just the training but also the numerous visits to doctors, therapists, etc. that I so often used as a cop-out. At the end of a year, I'd reevaluate my situation and see if I thought the sacrifice was worth it.
One year came and went and I was hooked. I was a runner and loved it. I then set my sights on the Trials.
I didn't make them, but hey at least I tried. Thus I'm proud to say I failed.
The following Poem entitled The Dilemma sums up my thoughts on
the matter way better than I can express:
To laugh is to risk appearing a fool.
To weep is to risk appearing sentimental.
To reach out to another is to risk involvement.
To expose feelings is to risk rejection.
To place your dreams before the crowd is to risk ridicule.
To love is to risk not being loved in return.
To go forward in the face of overwhelming odds is to risk failure.
But risks must be taken because the greatest hazard in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing.
He may avoid suffering and sorrow, but he cannot learn, feel, change, grow or love. Chained by his certitudes, he is a slave. He has forfeited his freedom.
Only a person who risks is free.
Thus I feel a great amount of pride in saying that I failed in Las Vegas last year. At least I tried. I came a lot closer than I would have had I just kept on making excuses.
As a friend of mine commented last year in a letter written to me two days after the marathon, "You wanted to do something and you went for it. The result is not as important as your attitude and you should really feel proud right now."
Or as I said earlier, failing and being a failure aren't the same thing. All one can control is his or her effort - you can't control the end result. Thus there should be no shame in not achieving as long as one gives it their all.
I failed, so what???? I'll try again.
Editor's Note: Robert Johnson, co-founder of LetsRun.com, has been running all of his life, but only competing seriously since the Fall of 1997 after a serious of injuries in curtailed his high school career and prevented him from running in college.
Since returning to competitive running, Robert has progressed quickly, and just missed out on qualifying for the 2000 US Men's Olympic Marathon Trials by running a 2:23:11 marathon at the 2000 Las Vegas Marathon.
When not running or working on the
web-site, Robert teaches high school math in Washington, DC
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