I grew up without my dad, which isn’t all that unusual, especially in the low-income neighborhood where I grew up in.
I had just enough contact with my father during my formative years to instill in me a desperate urge to impress him in absentia.
On paper, you might think that this desire led me to success, but in reality, it meant that I only set myself goals that I knew I could comfortably achieve. There were no risks in the challenges I set myself and this led to a life of adequacy. I excelled but only in the areas I knew I would excel in.
The first time I attended university, I studied English Literature because it was my best subject at college.
It felt like I barely applied myself over the course of my degree, but I came away with the highest grade. I went on to do a Masters and came away with a distinction even though I’d also worked a full-time job and felt like I hadn’t done my studies justice. I had ‘succeeded’ academically but the experience left me feeling hollow and I dropped out of a Ph.D. in my second year feeling thoroughly unfulfilled.
After my studies ended, I intended to write full-time.
Instead, I landed a job teaching creative writing to game design undergraduates.
After this, I worked as a narrative designer for an immersive game company. I enjoyed the creative freedom the work afforded me, but the project to project paycheck took me out of my comfort zone. I ended up working in the service industry for pay security while I figured out my next move.
I fell into the trap of feeling secure. When you feel secure, you rarely take risks. The menial stop-gap job ended up being a permanent position for years rather than the few months I had originally intended.
It wasn’t until I bruised my elbows and ego learning to skate that I really understood how to add value to my life. I learned that a desire to succeed is not enough on its own. I needed to be willing to fail to achieve my goals.
I was in my early 30s and stuck in the rut of my low paid but steady service industry job when an event at my local skatepark came up in my Facebook feed. It was a weekly all-girls skate night and crucially it was open to complete beginners. On any other day, I might have scrolled on past but I decided to take myself along and ended up having so much fun that first session that I went back and brought friends.
After attending for a few months, I signed myself up for a week-long skate camp. My friends weren’t feeling quite as brave/insane so I went solo. The camp was run by some semi-pro skaters who were on hand to teach skills and tricks as well as to scope out nice routes to ride and parks to practice in. I progressed — somewhat — and had a lot of fun, but my clumsy body didn’t quite have the coordination to make skating anything other than a brief flirtation.
After deciding skating wasn’t for me, I gifted my brand new deck to someone younger and more agile than me. I have no regrets. I enjoyed the experience and had immense fun, but I also took something important from the experience that has remained with me, long after the bruises, swelling and minor abrasions healed. I had a revelation one afternoon at the skate camp as I watched the pros and advanced skaters film themselves dialling in tricks and putting together lines.
In skating, a line is a flowing sequence of tricks that a skater performs. They’re usually shot in public spaces and they take advantage of street furniture to provide obstacles to ride on, under, and over. Kerbs, bins, walls, roofs, handrails: these can all provide opportunities for a good skater to showcase their skill and creativity.
Even before I’d taken up skating as an adult, I’d watched a fair few skate videos. When I was a teenager, many of my guy friends were into skating. Groups of us would hang out at together and watch Spike Jonze skate films on VHS while we sat around listening to bands like NOFX and Rancid. Back then, I hadn’t considered what went into making those films look so smooth and flawless.
As I watched the pros at skate camp film their lines, I saw that the seemingly effortless flow of the skaters from those films I’d watched was actually the result of numerous failures. I watched as the same trick was attempted over and over again until either it was dialed in or the skater was too tired/broken to carry on. They were literally risking their bodies to capture a few seconds of success on film.
Another thing struck me as I observed. When a trick failed, the skater who had attempted it wasn’t ridiculed. Amongst their peers, they were afforded the respect due to those who aren’t afraid to strive for something just out of reach.
Failing is massive in skating. It is the mechanism by which all successes within the sport are gained. As my bruised body by the end of the camp can attest, the risk of failure in skating is actual bodily harm. Concrete is an unforgiving teacher, and this is true whether you are a 30-something beginner or a seasoned pro.
I came away from skate camp a marginally better skater. But since I came to understood the necessity of failing my way to success, my life changed dramatically. I quit my job and took a huge risk by retraining as a physiotherapist — a major career change that shook me out of the rut I had worked myself into. I completed 6 marathons and became an ultramarathon runner. I found love, got engaged, and gave birth to a wonderful girl. My partner and I purchased and renovated our first home. I would never have achieved these personal successes without being willing to take risks and without being ready to fail.
I’m not the only one to have stumbled across the idea of failing towards success. It’s a relatively well-trodden self-development trope. But you can read the words of a catchy quote a hundred times and still not have it sink in. It took my skate camp experience to truly drive home the point that failure precedes true success. By gliding easily through my early academic life, and not pushing myself out of my comfort zone in my subsequent professional life, I didn’t prepare myself for anything other than mediocrity. It follows that mediocrity was what I achieved because I hadn’t learned how to put myself on the line for something I truly wanted or believed in.
When it comes down to it, I was still trying to impress my dad. I wanted to be seen to be succeeding, even if the reality was that I was avoiding what it takes to achieve true success. Now, I am not afraid to fail. I recognise that failing is just a part of the process. Mistakes, no matter how painful and public, enable growth, and growth is the prerequisite for success.
I’m not a skater, but I try to live like one. Nowadays, I’m always looking to find my flow, my perfect line, and I’ll get there by failing.