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You’re Not Afraid to Fail, You’re Afraid to Succeed Poorly

For Christmas gifts this year, I decided to triple up my efforts for my wife and son and build them both some cool – and necessary! – wooden furniture.

Now, I’m by no means a woodworking expert. I enjoy the heck out of the activity, but I’m generally pretty bad at it still.

The summer before my son was born, I spent hours out in the garage building a cubby bookshelf for him – my first woodworking project ever.

It was loaded with mistakes, but you honestly don’t notice them. So it was a “win” for me.

This time, I wanted to build some things that were a little more complicated.

For my son, I wanted to build him a foldable kitchen stand, so he can be at counter height when he wants to watch me cook – or help out. It involved a lot of cuts, so a lot of potential for messing up.

For my wife, I wanted to build her two tilt-out garbage bin cabinets for the kitchen. Our garbage and recycling has both been out in the open since we moved, and she really wanted them hidden away in something that would look clean and classy.

The stand turned out pretty well: it folds up like a dream, is very sturdy for my son to stand on without tipping over, and will be adjustable over time as he gets taller.

The cabinets? Well, let’s take a look:


They’re not terrible. They are the exact same height, so the top is nicely smooth and even all the way across.

But some cuts came out crooked. Others were slightly off. I had to patch up a lot of mistakes with wood filler – a noticeable solution when you are staining the wood instead of painting over it.

After they were done, I moved them up to the kitchen and loaded them with our garbages. Now they sit side by side as you can see above.

Also, as you can see above, they are horribly off-square.

The most noticeable section where you can see this is down the middle. At the top, the cabinets are beautifully even and flush with each other.

But follow that line down and the gap begins to widen. The crookedness is really clear.

I’ve been a bit frustrated by that. I put a lot of effort into these pieces, so being able to very clearly see the imperfections drives me nuts.

When people see them, they comment on how nice they look, only for me to disagree and talk about how amateur the workmanship is.

But my wife – the recipient of these gifts – thinks differently.

To be fair, she is a wild perfectionist. Like, to the point where it drives me up the wall so often.

But she loves these cabinets.

She sees the imperfections. She knows they are crooked. But she doesn’t care. She says the imperfections give the cabinets “character”, and she loves that.

The alternative to failure

I’m an amateur woodworker. I don’t have a lot of tools. I have no workshop (all of these pieces were built in the laundry room). I had only built one bookshelf, and it wasn’t all that great.

But I took the shot anyway. I chose two rather complicated builds, despite my inability to just make a square box.

From a woodworking standpoint, I bit off way more than I could chew. I didn’t fail… but I did rather poorly.

At the heart of the effort to avoid doing things, that’s really the fear, isn’t it?

We often talk about the fear of failure (heck, I wrote a dang book on it!), but I don’t know if all-out failure is what we’re afraid of.

I think we’re afraid that our best effort isn’t going to look or feel very good.

I gave those cabinets every effort I had, and they just don’t look that great. It’s not an all-out failure, but it’s a demoralizing realization anyway.

Have you avoided something because you were afraid of not doing well?

My childhood fear of doing poorly

It’s why I avoided sports for large portions of my childhood.

As John Mulaney puts it, “My brain understands sports. But then it has to outsource the job to my weird and feminine limbs. It looks like I just got my body and I don’t know how to operate it yet.”

That’s not failure. That’s just not doing well.

When I played sports, I didn’t do very well. I didn’t always fail, but I definitely would put in my best effort and just be kinda disappointing. In a way, that’s worse than a massive failure.

But what I failed to understand then – and what spurs me on to do more woodworking now – are two very important points about doing poorly:

First, when you don’t do well, you learn. Mistakes happen. The best part of doing poorly is the opportunity to figure out why you did poorly and correct the mistakes.

Kobe Bryant and LeBron James didn’t come out of the womb sinking jump shots. They practiced a lot – and they did poorly for a long time.

Every missed shot is a chance to fix something. A chance to get better.

Second, doing poorly is still doing something. You’re out there. You’re trying. You’re putting in some effort. That is ten times cooler than just doing nothing and avoiding it altogether.

It takes bravery to start something – especially something that you might not be good at.

But that guy who’s sitting on his couch dreaming of trying something but too afraid to go for it? You’re miles ahead of that guy.

You’re putting in effort, and that’s not something to be embarrassed about. Instead, you should be proud of your effort. Proud that you are trying something, whether that’s a side business, simple woodworking, or a new sport.

Stand by your effort in whatever you do.

Take some shots. You never know what might happen.

Building those cabinets was me taking another shot at woodworking. I didn’t fail – and that’s important. Even if they aren’t perfect, there’s a certain beauty to them.

There’s beauty in the imperfections. They show the effort that was made.

And we have the end result we wanted: two cabinets that hide our garbages. If I wanted to avoid the effort, we wouldn’t have those.

Give yourself a chance to get what you want. You’ll never get that chance by standing on the sidelines.

So get in there, fight, and be proud of your effort. That’s what truly matters.