Shame and failure
I felt a creeping sensation last night. I knew I wouldn’t pass. I was so far behind everyone else and there was no cramming that would make up for it. I stared at the ceiling knowing that tomorrow I was going to walk into a situation that would make me feel terrible. And I did. It was exactly what I imagined the night before. I felt this hollowness inside, coupled with a sense of dread and this feeling like I didn’t belong. Like I was too slow to grasp the concepts and maybe programming wasn’t for me. Though I enjoyed it, the rest of the students were so much faster and better.
That’s when I realized that it wasn’t repeating the class that made me feel bad about myself. I repeated plenty of classes in my life. It took me two years to understand how to do the moves in Crossfit. It took way more than that with painting. But I view both working out and making art as life long challenges with no actual end goal, and this allows me to view them with a playful curiosity. I show up excited to learn a new skill or a new move because its fun. No ones really watching so who cares.
What I felt after each failure at my programming school was an intense sense of shame. I was embarrassed that everyone had passed but me. I felt like I was fundamentally wrong somehow for being the one person to not get it — again. I had to repeat a class earlier, watching another group of students get it and move on. That was rough, and having to do it again felt like someone had punched me in the stomach.
I want to dig into why I felt shame then. It wasn’t so much the having to do the course again, but that I was the only one in the class who didn’t get it. I felt shame because I didn’t measure up to the people around me. We live in this world of social media where we’re constantly comparing one another, and I think this creates a culture of shame and inadequacy. That moment had nothing to do with my education. I felt shame because I put myself in a position where I might fail, and I did. And I was the only one in the class to fail, which cemented my belief that I was not good enough.
But failing is the thing we do until we get it right. My failures are the most important learning experiences for me, and feeling shame about them ruins that. It made me want to run out of the school and never look back. Quit programming altogether and settle into something less difficult This is shame at it’s worst and I think it keeps a lot of people from taking on challenges that might be too big for them. Or it keeps certain groups from entering a strange territory because they don’t feel like they belong. And if we want to change the demographics of certain industries, we’re going to have a lot of new people feeling like they’re failing. That’s fine. What’s not okay is feeling like you fail because you’re inherently not cut out for it. Shame is destructive and has no business being in the learning process.
This is not a success story. There is no million dollar app or job at Google. I am in the thick of it, pushing forward even with this sense of dread and embarrassment. The truth of it is is that I am slow. It takes me ages to get concepts down. I am a terribly average person. I failed hard today. It didn’t kill me, but the sense of shame felt like it would. There will be no post on Facebook showing me crying in a stairwell — again. But maybe that’s exactly what we need to start showing. In liue of an embarrassing photo, I will instead write this blog post to tell the world that I fail. I fail a lot, and I’m never going to stop. And maybe by showing the world how big of a failure I can be we can start challenging shame and get on with the business of learning and growing and being our best selves.