Here’s a story I rarely share.
When I was approximately 14 years old, the summer before my freshman year in high school, I excitedly (and very nervously) decided to try out for cheerleading. Middle school had been an absolute bust and I was determined to start high school on a different foot. While I wasn’t necessarily sold on being an actual cheerleader, I figured it was a sure fire way to make friends and get out of the geeky circle I was otherwise running with. It was a way out. And I was a shoe in. I could back handspring, front handspring and sprinkle finger my way to victory. I just knew it. People in middle school might not have known what I was capable of but in high school, people would see just how athletic, and sprinkle fingery I truly was.
I carpooled to tryouts with two popular girls – both named Tammy (not kidding) – they were friends with a middle school, fellow smart girl “friend” of mine. While they basically ignored me in the car on the way to tryouts the first day, I figured that by the time all was said and done, by virtue of proximity, we’d all end up friends. I envied their day glow tans, their fake nails, and their perfect, bouncy ponytails. I wanted nothing more than to be liked and accepted by them, if not to be more like them. Less awkward, please.
Only once we arrived at tryouts, they immediately scurried away from me. I grabbed my number, checked in, gulped down the nervous vomit that was inching its way up my esophagus, and made my way to the circle where one of the teachers was giving direction for the next two days of tryouts. For day one, we were supposed to break out in groups and learn choreography that we would use for our actual tryouts.
I was a dancer. I had been a dancer since age three. I could do choreography. I already understood how to count to a beat, the concept of rhythm and, well, how to dance. I was a shoe in. And then it was time to break into groups and practice. Only, none of the girls wanted to partner with me. Literally, not a single one. You would have thought I had crapped my pants or something. I stood there awkwardly waiting for a sign. Eventually, a very peppy but visibly frustrated high school phys ed teacher came up to me and asked me which group I belonged to. She seemed annoyed with me. I figured she must already hate me (and she was in charge of this whole shebang, she was the one who would determine my cheerleading fate). I felt panicky and red in the face. I felt some weird, awkward words spilling out of my mouth and then…she was ushering me over to a group, with a plea in her eyes towards the group to just please include the weird girl. It was like showing up uninvited to a party. Or showing up in your Halloween costume to a black tie ball. I was the outcast. Not wanted. I felt myself shrinking, looking for an escape from that gym.
While we worked on choreography, I felt like everyone’s eyes were on me, judging me, laughing at me, willing me to fail. I remember not wanting to cry. Not wanting to show them I was weak. As we planned out the routine, in nearly a whisper, I told the group that I could do a back handspring. One of the girls who had taken charge – who was a grade above me – basically just ignored me and continued talking over me. She gave us all instructions. She was taking charge and I was just another sheep, willing to do whatever she said just as long as I didn’t make waves. I was instructed to be in the background – last row of our group – and just do the moves we were supposed to learn. There was no way I was going to get a chance to show the cheer captains and teachers what I really could do. No back handsprings. No front flips. No sprinkle fingers for me. And that was that. I meekly accepted.
All throughout that day, I focused on being unwanted. I focused on being afraid to speak up. Of being afraid to be judged, laughed at, or worse, not accepted.
I went home that night and decided I wasn’t going to show up for day two of tryouts. I was going to quit before I even started. It seemed more important to me in that moment to save face and avoid rejection than just try. I don’t remember what I told my mom but she accepted my resignation.
I felt rejected, solemn, and silly for even trying on that first day. I could sense relief from the Tammys when I called to tell them I would no longer be carpooling with them. I’m pretty certain that even one of the Tammy’s moms (whichever Tammy’s mom was driving us, haha) was relieved she wouldn’t have to drive me anymore. Great, the weird girl is out.
As I recount this story, I can’t honestly say that I think cheerleading was the right path for me but even then, I also don’t think that quitting was the right path for me either. I quit for all the wrong reasons. I didn’t quit because my voice wasn’t being heard or because of any strong conviction, I quit because I was afraid of rejection. I quit because I was afraid of failure.
As a kid who was used to excelling, failure just wasn’t in the cards. I was a smart, top of my class kind of kid. And I not only excelled in academics, I also excelled in my different sports and activities. I was a good skier, snowboarder, wakeboarder, tennis player, swimmer, dancer, and runner. I was used to doing well at the things I tried to do which is why, in the case of cheerleading tryouts, at the very first sign of pushback, I decided I wasn’t about to put myself out there ….. the potential to fail at something was just too real!
As a proud, strong, smart and confident af woman, I don’t typically like to recount my middle school to high school memories. I don’t typically like to dredge up that version of myself: insecure, meek, and lacking confidence. It’s not fun to admit that deep down inside, I’m still sometimes that same 14 year old girl who shies away from the prospect of failing.
And as much as I don’t like that teenage version of myself, I also think it’s my responsibility to remember her sometimes. I think it’s important for me to remember that if I don’t try something, it’s a bigger failure than when I do try. And if I do try and fail, it’s an opportunity to get back on the horse and try again.
I’ve been thinking about that 14 year old girl a lot lately. Alyse and I recently had to make a big decision to shut down our startup, SweatGuru after over four years of tirelessly trying to make it work through creative financing, creative “engineering” and even more creative work arounds. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do and one of the most painful decisions I’ve ever had to make. Swallowing my pride and writing about our failure to the many friends, family, supporters and partners that had helped us realize our dream was horrible.
I felt low, depressed, and unworthy of the support that so many people had so graciously shown us. I felt like a failure who had let so many people (including myself) down and the weight of that failure hung on me like a ton of bricks for weeks. It was so bad in fact, that after teaching one Friday night a few weeks ago, I literally just crumpled into a little ball in the studio and cried. I didn’t move until my husband came to pick me up with Abbie in tow. He sat with me on the floor while Abbie licked my face and then eventually, I got up semi laughing at myself for the tears and the outburst and we went home.
In the quiet and calm once I was home, I realized that while I may have failed at something pretty substantial, life still goes on. The people that love and support me are still here and don’t look at me as weaker, but rather stronger. And instead of feeling down or sorry for myself, I have decided to feel proud. I’m proud of myself for trying. I’m proud of myself for the lessons I learned along the way and the challenges that I confronted.
I realize now that I’ve grown so much from that 14 year old version of myself. What I didn’t understand then, that I am only starting to understand now (over 20 years later) is that while failure might be scary and has the capacity to make you feel small and unworthy, it’s also the very thing that challenges you to grow. It’s the very thing that separates the weak from the strong.
So yes, I’m a failure. I failed. Not just at this one thing. But many things. My startup, 100 mile races, sometimes at things as simple as being a good listener. But each time I have failed, I have learned something new. And I know that I have grown as a person.
What have you failed at recently and more importantly, what did you learn from it?
Stay sweaty (and uncomfortable enough to fail!) friends,
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