I’ve lived a safe life. I was coddled as a child. I’ve coddled myself as an adult. This year is my last year in the 18-35, middle class, white, American demographic that is considered THE MAN. (Being THE MAN is cool and all, but acting like a man has much more value.) Life has been exceptionally good to me. I’ve enjoyed it with relative safety and extremely low risk. But what’s a life without risk? It’s really not life at all. Now let’s be clear: There’s stupid risk and there’s worthy risk. Stupid risk includes things like driving drunk, eating a piece of gum from under the chair on the subway, taking meth, wearing Red Sox gear in Yankee stadium, things like that. Worthy risk is stuff like letting yourself fall in love despite the reality of potential heartbreak; traveling to foreign-speaking lands and relying on strangers to help you along the way even though you’ll probably feel detached due to the language barrier; quitting your job to follow your passion knowing that health insurance costs, like, a zillion dollars that you probably aren’t going to make in becoming a freelance photographer; creating and sharing something with the world “just because” even though people will likely tear it apart with their internet witticisms.
The high possibility of failure is the scary part of these worthy risks. But I contend that failure is good. Failure is what develops and nurtures the confidence, self-awareness, humbleness, and self-critic within us. It lends us a crystal clear mirror to view our shortcomings without judging us or giving us shortsighted advice. It simply tells us the truth about who we are and how we exist within ourselves.
The feeling of failure is something we deal with quite early in life. When I was home back east for Christmas in 2012, my three and a half year old nephew was throwing a soft toy ball around my brother’s and sister-in-law’s apartment. It was only a matter of time before it hit someone or something that was off limits. And of course it did. That someone who was off limits was my mother. And the something was her face. Bear in mind this soft toy ball was just that: soft and a toy, so my mom hardly flinched when it hit her. But Jack threw it at her face and that was a major no-no. So when my sis-in-law raised her voice sternly and instructed Jack to apologize to his Granny, he turned red, hung his head, and was clearly deeply embarrassed by his actions while giving a tiny, almost inaudible “Sowwy, Gwanny” to my mother. As I bit my tongue and restrained myself from wiping away my welling tears caused by Jack’s overwhelming cuteness in this situation, I knew that he felt like a failure; like he let mommy and Gwanny down. But he wasn’t actually a failure – he just felt like one – he simply made a mistake. One that could be absolved by a simple apology. My sis-in-law was a proper mom and made him man up (toddler up?) and apologize for that mistake. Lesson learned. Ten seconds later he was running around laughing like a maniac without a care in the world. Kids are so resilient.
I look back at my life, like we all do, and I see times and events and actions and inactions that I consider failures: Bad relationships, demotions at work, treating people with less respect than they deserve, not finishing college, lying to myself, hiding behind my own insecurities, being dishonest, contemplating the world without me in it, turning a blind eye to save myself a conflict. I beat myself up because of those failures. I spent so much time rehashing each incident, reliving it in my mind, replaying it and repeating the words or thoughts I had during it. I became so hard-hearted that at times I would self-penalize by not allowing myself to smile, or feel loved, or enjoy music, or a film, or even eat, until I felt satisfied that I had lived down this “horrific” incident. And no one could help me. No one who cares about me would ever encourage or reinforce this behavior, but they wouldn’t even know I was hurting. I wouldn’t risk letting them in.
After time has taken care of the superficial wounds, and years of emotional work have taken care of the deeper ones, I am beginning to recognize that the worst decisions I’ve ever made and the hardest times in my life were immediately followed by the most rewarding ones. It’s no coincidence that in 2007 when I was lying on the floor of my bathroom in tears after a phone call from my ex telling me that I was unreliable, unlovable, and a bad person – thinking my life was useless and all she said was true – that the following few months would be the beginning of some of the hardest and most rewarding emotional work I’ve ever done; work that has created a new me. A me who finally believes in himself, cares for himself, recognizes his potential, and has become a man who could see that someone else’s subjectivity really has no effect on him.
I don’t typically make New Year’s Resolutions. I mean, I don’t smoke, I don’t eat sweets, I don’t drink…too much, so I don’t need to make any broad, sweeping changes in my life; I’ve got my responses to life’s curve balls relatively under control. But if I need to make a subtler change (and there are puh-lenty to be made), I try to make it regardless of the timing. However, the majority of change that has occurred in my life happened to me when I didn’t want it. (I mean, really, when are you presented with a challenging opportunity that you’re prepared for? I wish.) Often I was resisting the change as it was happening or screaming at the ceiling, “WHYYY MEEE?!?!” for hours, days, or weeks after the unwanted change had taken place. This led me to live with my mind planted firmly in the past and to do anything in my power to avoid potential future conflict and big, bad, scary situations that presented me with change, however small or large, even planning hours, days, weeks ahead for conversations or situations that were, in reality, pure fiction when I thought of them. What I’ve learned by opening up to constant and oftentimes unwelcome change: Change is good. Always. 100% of the time. It is NEVER bad. Every change I’ve had to make in my entire life has benefitted me in ways that are unquantifiable by any advanced statistical metric, but are substantially better than the alternative of staying the same. Failure is the beginning of that change. And change is something I embrace now that I’ve recognized my lack of risk-taking.
2014 will be the year in which I fail. I’m going to fail hard. Wicked hahd. I’m going to fail often. I’m going to fail so much that Merriam-Webster is going to put my picture next to the word failure in their dictionary. I’ll be wearing a poorly tied bow tie – that I failed to put on correctly because bow ties are super hard to tie – and holding a self-made trophy put together with scraps of wood I foraged from Home Depot and a little Greedo action figure standing atop. (Greedo failed to shoot first.) Failure will be my new middle name. Failing will be the first life skill I list on my LinkedIn profile. When I walk into a room, everyone’ll turn and exclaim, “There’s Steve Molter! Ooh, what a failure!” The women will swoon. The men will clench their fists with jealousy. And I’ll hold my head up high. By year end, I will have left behind a trail of failure so grand that everyone will know my name and all the things at which I failed.
I’m going to fail so epically this year: At making my first film. At making a new record with my band. At falling in love. At getting out of the country to explore parts of the world I’ve never been before. At encouraging my friends when they struggle and keeping them grounded when they succeed. At opening my heart to new experiences, ideas, and people. At asking the question, “How are you?” and actually waiting to hear the answer. At driving more responsibly. At opening my eyes to the kindness of strangers. At letting myself be loved. At being less judgmental about my creative impulses. At being more inclined to say yes when asked to help out. At taking it easier on myself when I can’t be there for someone in need. At being clearer and more direct with my communication. At writing this essay right now. At photographing portraits. At being a good uncle to my niece and nephew. At being a good brother, brother-in-law, son, grandson, cousin, nephew, friend, bandmate, and general human being.
More risk brings more failure brings more change brings a better and more successful me. How can I say no to that? So this is my (belated) New Year’s Resolution for 2014: Fail more.