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First, You Have to Fail

First, You Have to Fail

You learn to miss the fear, but not at first.

First, everything is confusing and intimidating.

It takes me ten minutes just to figure out how to cross the street in Vietnam. I’m not exaggerating. I walk to the corner toward the street market, only three blocks away. Everything feels full. The street, the sidewalk, and every other flat surface is covered with motorbikes, people, plastic stools, fruit and garbage.

At the corner, I step out. Nothing slows or stops, and with a Moto whipping towards me, I jump back. I wait for a gap that will never come, and soon I’m feeling silly, wondering what onlookers think as I stand teetering between the sidewalk and the vehicles.

After a few weeks, I can identify this dance in an instant - the giggles to disguise insecurity; the forward-and-back shuffle; the frightened eyes in headlights.

We all know: no matter how bad you are at something, practice will show improvement. It might not make perfect, but everyone can learn. I knew this. I know it, but I’m finding that I don't always believe it.

Leading into a blind switchback on wet pavement in mountain fog so thick it blankets the brake lights ten meters out front, i remind myself to unclench my jaw. My neck is sore from holding my shoulders up. The trick is to keep my speed in check on the straights because my tires need time to slow on the buttery road if I come up on gravel, a sharp turn, or a chicken. Or, for that matter, a water buffalo.

I hate this.

Not a simple, “this sucks” kind of hate, but a deep, honest desire to ghost my Moto off a cliff and hitchhike to my next homestay.

It takes about four hours to drive 100 kilometres, and it isn't because I'm really no good at driving a motorbike (though I am truly no good at it). With no moments to relax and cruise, driving in Asia is utterly exhausting.

Motorbike by a roadside in Vietnam
Motorbiking through Vietnamese mountains

Every day goes a little something like this:

Wake up and eat whatever there is for breakfast.

Bungee a rain poncho on top of my pack for inevitable rain.

Back the Moto onto the street.

Do not drop the bike. (I’m not strong enough to pick it back up).

White-knuckle the handlebars for one or two hundred kms.

Find food that probably won't make me sick.

Sleep.


On day 3, I come through a wide corner in the rain and another Moto is stopped on the road. If you've ever driven a semi-automatic bike, you'll  know it has a left front brake on the bars, just like a bicycle. The rear brake is at your right foot. Clutch on the left. When you slow down, ideally you use both brakes, or even both brakes and downshift.

At the very least, use the rear brake.

But that’s a thing you learn.

Instead, I grab a handful of the front brake and slam my chest into the bars before skidding and smashing to the ground. The handlebar lands on my hand before the bike slides away, stopping just short of the other motorist. I roll and scrape to a stop, mostly shocked.

Road rash is a rite of passage for a tourist in Southeast Asia. When a dozen locals instantly materialised and pulled me and my bike off the road, I'm sure they weren't surprised that another foreigner was smeared on the pavement. The man next to my bike pointed to my brakes enthusiastically, which I took to mean “use both brakes, stupid”, and he was right. A woman ran over to inspect my wounds and then reappeared with a little bottle of green liquid that she rubbed on my bruises and scrapes.

Hopefully you don't read this and think, “wow, I'm never driving in Asia,” although that might be a reasonable conclusion for a few of you.

I tell this story because I have a suspicion that the way I felt about getting on a motorbike for the first time in an enormous, crowded city in Vietnam, is the exact same emotion many of us feel when we consider going to yoga for the first time, joining the PCC and riding in a group, or going for a run with your friends.

Three hikers in southeast Asia

Last week, I decided to go to a martial arts class. One of my closest friends is an exceptional martial artist, so why not tag along? For the same reason most people don't do things like this: because I was definitely going to suck.

I’m good at rock climbing, hiking really slowly, and… basically no other sports. My endurance engine is very small and un-maintained. If it raises the heart rate, I’m bad at it.

So, before class, I started inventing excuses.

I didn’t sit down and say “what excuse can I use to avoid this?” Most people aren’t so logical about avoiding hard things. I just thought “it’s probably more important to cook lunch for tomorrow” and “I deserve a relaxing night of reading” and “I don't really have time for a new sport anyway”.

I was nervous.

And, predictably, I totally sucked!


There's a quote I love by Virgil Thomson:

“Try a thing you haven't done three times. Once, to get over the fear of doing it. Twice, to learn how to do it. And a third time to figure out whether you like it or not.”

It’s not a perfect formula. When I was learning to drive a motorcycle, it took several attempts to overcome my fear, and many more to learn how to do it. I had a hand injury for months after the crash. But when I returned my bike two weeks later, I missed it the moment I walked away.

When I had to come home five weeks later, I cried. Not because I didn't want to return to work or because Vietnam felt like a vacation, but because I knew that at home, I wouldn't be forced to practice new things everyday. I would have to choose my doses of fear, and like most people, I'm inclined to avoid those.


Maybe as we grow up, we learn to fear failure. I have a hunch that it's tied up in our culture of specialization; we talk about finding a thing we’re good at as if we just need to dig deep enough and uncover it.

Some people do have incredible natural talent! We all know these people. Maybe you've heard Brayden play the trumpet, or seen Kathy ride a bike. That’s talent mixed with practice. But I firmly believe that practiced skill is more important than natural talent.

And - maybe you saw this conclusion coming - I think that practice itself is more important than how good you are at anything! Practice is what gives us resilience; we learn so much more when we fail than we do when we succeed.

On one hand, this is a story about the fact that I learned something, but it's also a story about my certainty that most people walk around with my same lack of belief in their own ability to get better. At anything. So most people don't even try.

By extension, most of us feel incredible pride and surprise when we nail it, as well as when we fail.

Because what did you do when you failed? You TRIED. And that's scary,

And since most people avoid things that are scary, you are officially amazing.

Here's another quote to drive this idea home:

“I really don’t think life is about the I-could-have-beens. Life is only about the I-tried-to-do.”

-Niki Giovanni

After all, where would we get all of our best stories if not from our I-tried-to-dos?

Wild Rock staffer Tori Silvera next to a lake in Southeast Asia