You Can’t Win the Game If You Don’t Play

Real talk: I’ve spent most of my life as a fixed-mindset perfectionist who is afraid to take any risks. 

Also real talk: I don’t think you can become a published author if you are a fixed-mindset perfectionist who is afraid to take any risks.

I wrote last week about trophy-chasing. I’ve been both trapped in and fueled by this “must win” mentality. I have generally asked myself: “Why do it if I can’t be good at it?” And yeah, I’ve amassed a fine resumé by proceeding through life this way.

But, my attitude probably kept me from trying and enjoying a number of activities, including but not limited to:

  • Rock climbing
  • Puzzling of all kinds
  • Scrabble 
  • Difficult card games with lots of rules
  • Science and math
  • Dancing
  • All team and individual sports involving contact with a ball
  • And who knows what else because I would never even think to give it a go

Basically, failure so terrified me that I’d avoid any situation in which it was possible. And, when I did try hard at something, I’d hold back just a bit. That little gap between how much effort I put forth and how much I actually had to give allowed me some internal face-saving. When I didn’t win or reach my goal, it would be because I didn’t give my absolute all, and not because I wasn’t good enough or smart enough.

So what finally changed? What allowed me to wade into the publishing water where failure and rejection, even in the most fairy-tale stories of success, are the inevitable norm? I’m not really sure, and I’m wary of sounding like I’ve got everything figured out. But, I think what happened is, I finally started valuing bravery more than success or talent or smarts. 

It might have been watching my kids as athletes that changed things for me. They both fling themselves into competition, going for absolute broke and opening themselves to the high-highs and low-lows that accompany that kind of commitment. It might have been the looming milestone birthday of 40, an age beyond which women seem to give, as they say, fewer fucks. It might have been Brené Brown’s now-famous TED talk in which she explains that you can’t really be authentic unless you’re willing to take a risk once in a while. It was probably at least in part due to Carol Dweck’s growth mindset research that impacted so strongly my work as a teacher.

In any case, I tried to write a book. I tried to get an agent. We tried to sell the manuscript. “You can’t do it if you don’t try to do it,” I told myself. I hope that mantra keeps helping me put myself out there, even through the inevitable disappointments. In Brené Brown’s recent Netflix special, “The Call to Courage,” she gives it to us straight: “You’re brave with your life; you choose to live in the arena? You’re going to get your ass kicked.” I find the certainty of failure kind of freeing now. Let’s embrace it together.

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Kathleen West

Kathleen West is the author of the forthcoming novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, out 2/4/20 from Berkley. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.

This article has 4 Comments

  1. I’ve been through a similar journey and publishing has definitely changed my mindset for the better. Thanks for sharing. Love the way you incorporated so many things that shifted your thinking! Very inspiring 🙂

  2. So, so true! You get to my age (low 70’s) and you really think about all the risks not taken and what might have happened if you had trusted yourself more and been a bit braver. At the tender age you have attained, you’ve already figured that out!! I’m so proud of you..

    1. Thanks, Phee! Here’s to the risk-taking. Your comment reminds me of another favorite mantra: It’s not too late, and you’re not too old.

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