The “F” Word

It’s Saturday in the offseason. By rule, I get to write about anything I want.

Writers are tempted to draw universal truths about writing.  They tend to use writing as a metaphor for life, death, the Federal Reserve Board, whatever*. I hope to avoid that trap today, but at this moment of my life, I can’t help but lean on some lessons that I’ve learned from the shadow life I’ve cultivated as a football writer, blogger, hack, whatever. *My apologies to George Will.

As my wife and I begin to pack up our possessions in preparation for a move back to Indiana, I can’t help but think about everything we hoped to accomplish when we first arrived in Argentina nine years ago.  We gave our all to meet the goals that we had set before leaving home, but any honest assessment of what we are leaving behind would have to include the word failure.

It’s a nasty word, failure. It shouldn’t be, but it is. We set high goals, and like most endeavors with lofty aims, we didn’t meet them all. Yes, there’s a very real sense in which any time spent working on behalf of the poorest people in society cannot rightly be called a failure. I understand that better than most people. Still, when you aim high, you often come up short. Making excuses for it after the fact or just being content with what you did accomplish only cheapens the goal you were aiming at. My wife and I wanted to have the kind of lasting impact and do the kind of community altering work that may not even be possible.

We failed. 

We did the work.  We didn’t get the results.

Ten years ago, I would have terrified to say the ‘f word’. Now, I’m not nearly so scared of it.  Don’t get me wrong, I still hate the word failure. It still stings. It still makes me sick to my stomach to think about everything we dreamed of but never achieved. I mourn the loss of what could have been. Failure is miserable, but one thing has changed: I’m not afraid of it anymore.

The reason is because I write. Every day for the last few years, I’ve sat down at my computer and shared my thoughts about football, baseball, movies, whatever. Every single day, I’ve had to crush that small voice in the back of my head that insidiously whispers over and over you are a fraud. you are an impostor. you are going to fail. 

Some days the voice was inaudible.  Let’s face it, it’s not that hard to shred a Bill Simmons column. Other days, hearing that voice is like sharing a meal with an old friend. Call it My Dinner with Inadequacy. When I sat down to work on my novel, Invincible, Indiana (coming this fall!) it was the RCA Dome with :19 left in the fourth quarter of 38-34.

YOU SUCK, screamed the voice.

Self-doubt is rarely polite.

The voice waived the f-word in front of me. My own personal matador begged this angry bull to charge to my doom. Don’t try! it said. You’ll fail.  You’ll be a failure. 

I had to make a choice.  I chose to accept the likelihood of failing. I know that Invincible, Indiana will probably not be a best seller. Honestly, if even a few hundred people buy it, I’d be thrilled.

I wrote it anyway. 

I’m so glad I did, because I’ve had enough people read it and enjoy it to convince me of one important truth:

The voice is lying.

He may be right. But he is lying.

Writing has taught me that failure is measured on a curve. The only frauds, the true impostors, the failures are the ones who never try, who never risk, who never get their ass handed to them. I didn’t write a perfect book. I don’t run a perfect blog, but I wrote a good book, and I run a good blog.  I’m not everything I want to be, not as a writer, not as a man. I’m failing every day. Failure is my tailor, and I wear his suits well. I’m not afraid to go out in public wearing his latest style.

I look at my kids, and I so want to spare them the heart-ache of coming up short. They are beautiful, and smart, and wonderful, but I know that they will be failures too.  I know this because I committed to raising them to not listen to that voice, to not fear the f-word. I may have to beg for their forgiveness one day, but I will never regret it.  There is no way for them to become everything they can be without failure. And God help me, I so want to see them become everything they can be.

I suppose I’ll have to show them the way.

So, after a decade in Argentina, I’m going home a failure.

I’m proud of that.