Why you should fail in front of your kids

Some years ago, before I met my partner, was embarking on fatherhood and was pursuing a career in the creative arts, I was listening to a podcast that featured David Duchovny (the dude from X-Files and Californication).

I didn’t know much about the guy other than a few episodes of Californication, but for whatever reason I tuned into this particular podcast. I can’t even remember which podcast it was (maybe this one with Bill Simmons?). But he said something really interesting that stuck with me and it’s something I’ve thought back on a lot as I enter into parenthood.

He had just released his debut studio album (I listened to a bit of it, I guess it’s sort of like folk rock) and was talking to the interviewer (I swear it was Bill Simmons) about the process. At this point, he was already in his mid-50’s and was pursuing this brand new venture as a musician. He had been actor for decades, but had decided that he’d like to really learn how to play guitar and put out a music project.

I thought that was cool. A successful person in their 50’s didn’t think it was too late to start something knew. But what was even cooler was when he talked about the reason why. And this is the part that stuck with me.

He said he wanted to show his daughter, who was 16 at the time, that it was okay to suck at something. He wanted her to see the process, what the struggle looked like and what you can accomplish if you stick with something. He wanted to set an example for her and show her first hand that you can start something new and with the right amount of work you can get better at it. That even as a non-musician in his 50’s he can put out his own rock album.

That resonated with me. I didn’t get into performing until just before my 25th birthday and didn’t take it seriously until early this year - well into my late 20’s. I was terrible at first. I’m still not the best actor. But where I am today is miles and miles ahead of where I was a few years ago, and a few years from now I expect to be miles ahead from where I am today.

And now, thinking about my daughter coming into this world in just over a month, I think about all of the new things she’ll be learning. Everything will be brand new. Eating, sleeping, crying, talking, crawling, standing, everything. She’ll be learning every second of every single day. And that’s so beautiful.

I want her to keep that.

I think as we grow up, we feel like we learn everything we need to and then we go into autopilot. If you work at a monotonous job you know what this is like. You do the same thing every day and aren’t pushed to have to learn anything new at all.

Then we tell ourselves that we can’t do stuff. Unless we’re fully proficient at a particular thing, we feel as though that certain things are not for us. I can’t sing. I can’t draw. I can’t act. As we grow into adulthood, we all of a sudden believe that we’re done learning new things. That we are what we are and we’ve completely missed the boat on being good at certain things.

It’s bullshit. It’s living behind a wall of fear and insecurity because we are afraid to suck.

But my daughter? She has no choice. She is going to suck at pretty much everything in the beginning. You ever see kids drawings? Or performances? Or penmanship? They’re terrible!

But she has to suck in the beginning, because she doesn’t have any practice. Of course she’ll suck. And that’s okay.

But the difference is we praise and encourage our children, because we know that it isn’t final. We know that they have a long way to go and will continue to learn and get better. We don’t ever tell them they suck because we don’t want to break their spirit and know that with enough practice, they’ll keep getting better.

So why do we tell ourselves we suck? Why do we feel that we must be instantly good at something without any practice? How come when someone asks if you can draw/sing/dance you say, “oh my god, no, I’m a terrible drawer/singer/dancer!”. What kind of message does that tell our children?

How can we be so hypocritical to tell them that they’re good at something (even when they’re not yet) and then tell ourselves we suck (even when we’re much better than we thought we were)?

By refusing to suck at something, we are taking away the chance to teach our children valuable lessons. We are telling them that it’s okay to not try. We’re instilling dangerous myths into their psyche about giftedness and talent. The myths that tell us that you are born to do something and there’s no sense working for it.

These myths are bullshit. Talented people are not talented because they were born that way, they are talented because they had the courage to suck over and over again until they didn’t anymore.

I believe that if you want to raise children who lead a life of passion, who create important work, that it’s your responsibility to show them that it’s okay to suck at first. I’m dead serious. Pull out the guitar and play the wrong chords until you don’t anymore. Clean off the paintbrush and mess around with colours until they start to not look disgusting. Sing until you finally hit the right note.

I’m sure you’re great at a lot of things. And there’s probably many things you do that make your children think that you’re a superhero. But don’t just show your kids the end result. It’s your responsibility to show them the beginning, too. The part where you’re struggling. Where you’re vulnerable and exposed.

No, they won’t think you’re a fraud. They’ll still think you’re a hero, I promise.

And, most of all, you’ll be the greatest teacher they’ll ever have.

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