Sarah Wyland | On Failure

On Failure

Sarah Wyland | On Failure

When I was three, I took a pair of safety scissors, cut a yellow piece of construction paper into thin strips, then cut some of those strips into smaller pieces. I used a glue stick to artfully place one long strip and several of the shorter strips right down the middle of a piece of black paper

“Look, Mama, I made a road!”

My mama was impressed.

Her three year old had the wits about her to notice that roads had yellow lines, and that some lines were dashes (you know, for passing). My Grandma Myrtle stopped by later that afternoon. Mama showed her my creation.

“Myrtle, she made a road!”

And off they went, making over my two colors of construction paper and sloppy scissor work like it was a Monet. I was only three, but I vividly remember how impressed they were. I was a prodigy in that moment, and I liked how it felt, even if I didn’t understand the feeling. That construction paper road was my first remembered experience with head pats and gold stars. It was my first step down a long road (no pun intended) of being an overachiever.

In first grade, everyone had lost a tooth except me and a kid named Rowdy. Each time a student lost a tooth, they got to put a star sticker on a chart in the classroom. My friends had one, two, even three stars, but I had nothing but a mouth full of baby teeth. I was determined to lose a tooth before Rowdy. Every night, I checked to see if I had a loose one. I systematically tried to wiggle each and every tooth. I briefly considered extreme measures, like tying a string around my tooth and the other end to a door knob and going bobbing for apples, just like the Berenstain Bears, but even then I knew my pain tolerance was low.

Finally, I lost a tooth.

Before Rowdy.

I finally got to put a star on the chart. That one tooth created a domino effect and by the end of the year, I had lost the most teeth in class. There wasn’t an award – and oh how I wish I could find a photo of a toothless Sarah – but I got the luxury of knowing I had lost the most teeth. My long line of star stickers was proof.

When fourth grade rolled around, I was ecstatic to get my report card. It was the first year we got “real” grades and I wanted to see ‘As’ and ‘Bs’ instead of the standard “O for outstanding, S for satisfactory” markings (I, of course, never received an “N for needs improvement). My first report card was all As and Bs – Honor Roll! I proudly produced my report card to my mom for a signature, and to my surprise, received money in return. Not just from her, either. Daddy and both sets of grandparents award me with green to celebrate.

Again, with the head pats and praise. I wanted more (and the money didn’t hurt, either. $5 a few times over added up to buy a lot of pogs, slammers, and Backstreet Boys albums ) and so I diligently made sure I studied, did all of my homework, and got the highest scores.

My mom will tell you my reaction to any bad grade or struggle with material is one of the causes of her high blood pressure. She lost hours of her life listening to me wail – we’re talking full on meltdowns – over math problems and recite with certainty how I was going to fail the next day’s test. During my freshman year of college, I had to withdraw from a statistics class because my anxiety over homework and tests was crippling. In college, I never slept the night before exams in my 8AM classes because I was convinced I would oversleep. I had my dad to call me at 7:00 AM on test mornings to make sure I was awake.

I can honestly say I didn’t have the kind of parents who pressured me to succeed – they just wanted me to be happy – but I put an immense amount of pressure on myself, pressure created from a deep desire to succeed. My college resume was perfect. All A’s unless it was a math or economics class and then it was a B because numbers will just never be my thing. Board member in my sorority. Resident Assistant (won an award for that, too). Student ambassador. Member of the newspaper staff and the online news site. I was even a deejay for the college radio station. I had the right internships, created the right networks to make sure I got a good job in Nashville in the field I wanted to work in right out of college.

You get the idea.


I have always gone above and beyond. I work hard in the office. I tend to join organizations and then join the board of said organization. I can’t just have a few people over for book club. I have to put out a full spread of finger foods, wine, tea, and lemonade. I stress myself out for two hours of talking about everything except the book with a group of friends that wouldn’t care if I had a spread worthy of a Southern Living feature or opened a plastic container from the grocery store, placed it on the coffee table, and called it night.

Then, I was introduced to the concept of “failure” in weightlifting.

Going to failure in the gym is, in its most basic explanation, banging out reps of an exercise until you physically can’t anymore. The neuromuscular system can no longer produce enough force to overcome the resistance. It’s a popular technique for muscle growth (hypertrophy) as muscles grow by being broken down and re-built.

When I first starting lifting, I hated lifting to failure during our occasional hypertrophy cycles. It was a mental block. Failure means – failing. With a long history of being first, best, and right, failing was something I simply did not do. I would stop just before failure, knowing I had at leat once more rep left in me.

And then, my then coach, Justin, re-framed it for me.

“Get out of your head and let yourself fail,” he said. “Failing means you’re getting stronger.”

For the handful of you reading this who know and have trained with Justin, I’m sure you’ve been on the receiving end of one of his tough love talks. He’s good at them. He’s made me cry more than once (the good kind of crying) and helped me push past obstacles of my own creation.

He went on to explain to me that it wasn’t enough to work right up to failure, and then quit. I needed to push until I actually failed. I needed to get comfortable with the struggle, that uncomfortable place where you know you just can’t push out one more rep, but you try anyway. The “try” is where change happens.

In that moment, he was talking about both weightlifting and life. That tends to be how his tough love talks go. You learn about how to grow your muscles while getting a life lesson, too. “You need to embrace the struggle,” he said.

Embrace the struggle.

I’ve never liked to struggle. I’ve definitely struggled. Physically. Emotionally. Financially. Mentally. With the fact that there aren’t enough hours in the day or hands to juggle all the things. I had a few weekends ago when I stopped to look at my then to-do list, saw the sheer length of it, and just lost it. But, I’ve also found there’s usually something pretty good on the other side of struggle.

And that was Justin’s point.

Embrace the struggle. Get comfortable with it. Don’t fear it. Trust it. Trust that what’s on the other side of struggle, of failure, is better than what you’re leaving behind. Bigger muscles. A better life. A brighter day. Something is always waiting on the other side of failure.

I still don’t like to fail. I don’t think I’ll ever be comfortable with the idea of failing at something. I get mad when I fail a lift. I sulk when a marketing idea for the studio doesn’t work. I’ve been known to cry tears of frustration over something as simple (jokes) as putting together a piece of IKEA furniture. But after the struggle, I inevitably make the lift. Maybe not that same day, but soon after. Another idea does work and people show up, buy packages. The damned dresser gets put together and looks fantastic, even if one of the drawers stick and you’re pretty sure you weren’t supposed to have so many leftover parts.

There really is beauty in struggle, in the moment of failure that drains our muscles and sometimes our hearts.

Try to embrace that struggle. Try to trust it. Try to get comfortable with it. Accept failure as part of the overall growth plan.

Then, let me know what goodness you find on the other side of it.

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