Free from the Fear of Failure (or Why I’m Still Doing CrossFit)

Last night I listened to an episode of the TED Radio Hour podcast called ‘Nudge‘. If you’re a parent, or even just a human, I’d suggest listening to it. It’s no exaggeration to say that doing so led me to an epiphany; possibly multiple epiphanies, about myself and parenting. Allow me to set the stage:

I received an email recently congratulating me on my 18 month anniversary at RFX CrossFit. There are a few reasons I joined CrossFit back in February of 2015:

  1. I was coming to realise that I needed to get into better shape to keep up with my growing children (i.e. I was getting tired of nearly putting my back out at the age of 29 because my kids wanted me to pick them up)

  2. I had met a couple of CrossFitters who were quite fit, yet very humble about it. I’ve never had any interest in The Gym, but the way these guys talked about CrossFit made it seem sort of like a team sport, which I’ve always enjoyed

  3. A new CrossFit gym was being built around the corner from our house and I felt compelled, in a Gut Feel kind of way, to check it out. I’m a person who likes to go with my gut, regardless of how soft and weak it was at the time

I could write a lot about my CrossFit experience in general, but this isn’t the post for it. Suffice it to say that when I started I literally could not do a single push-up (which surprised me!). I’ve come a long way since then, having recently achieved such goals as squatting my own bodyweight, snatching over 50kg, stringing together 20 or 30 double unders, etc… To be honest though, I’m not that motivated by the numbers.

In the last few months I realised I had achieved what I’d set out to do: I could pick up my kids, lift them over my head, swing on the monkey bars with them, do handstands in the park, all without fear of getting hurt. So when I hit my one year anniversary, and again on my 18 month anniversary, the question arose in my mind: Why am I still here? Should I carry on?

The thing is, I’ve spent more money on fitness in the last 18 months than in all my life prior to that. I mean, the results have been great, but I’m still sometimes uncomfortable with the cost; after all, how much do I want to invest in a body that will eventually fail, no matter what I do? And it is hard work, especially getting up at 5am to go to class before work, in order not to detract from family time.

I know this is getting long, but stick with me because I’m nearly at the epiphany.

If you haven’t already listened to the podcast I mentioned in the intro, let me summarise a bit of it for you: when you praise children (or people) in a straightforward manner – “What a beautiful picture!”, “You’re so smart”, “You did so well at soccer today!” – something scary happens: having felt “the rush” of being complimented, the recipient develops a tendency to restrict themselves to doing only that which results in more praise. In other words, the praise they received gives them an incentive to stick with what they know they’re good at, and to avoid taking risks.

As I digested this information, I came to realise that most of my life I’ve been experiencing that very thing. I was always a pretty smart kid, reasonably well behaved, committed to doing a good job at work and generally fulfilled by words of affirmation (my #1 Love Language!). As interesting as this perspective was, this wasn’t the epiphany itself. The epiphany is this: the reason I’m still doing CrossFit – what I like so much about it, why I’m willing to pay a bit extra for it – is because it has become my safe place to fail.

I joined RFX all by myself. A new environment, all new people, new activities and challenges like I had never faced before. I was weak. Properly weak. I knew nothing about gymnastics (I broke my arm attempting a one-armed handstand at 17 years old), had never imagined that I would pick up a barbell, and I couldn’t understand 80% of the WOD (workout of the day) for the first few months without the coach explaining it.

I spent the first few weeks being the only guy doing knee push-ups. While the regulars did pull-ups, I referred to them as dangles because I could only hang there wishing myself upward (I learned some regressions, don’t worry). For the first little while I had to take 3 or 4 days off after every workout because I was too sore to move. And every time I thought I was getting a movement right, one of my dear coaches would point out yet another deficiency in my form or technique (with the best of intentions).

I have probably failed in CrossFit more times than I’ve ever failed at anything in my life. Possibly more than all my other failures combined. I literally fail every day as I push my body to new limits and build strength and skill. The box – as CrossFitters affectionately call their workout area – is my safe space to fail, and I love that. When I fail in front of the strongest and best – the legends – in the box, I’m not embarrassed, and they’re not critical; they’ve become the best because they’ve faced failure probably thousands of times more than me. More likely than not they’ll say an encouraging word or offer some nugget of wisdom that’ll help me nail it next time. If I fail in front of newer or weaker members of the box I can only assume that it’ll inspire them like it’s inspired me when I’ve seen it in others: that ability to reset, keep a positive attitude, focus and try again.

I’ve been hesitant to compete again since attending my first competition back in February 2016. I did pretty well (in my opinion) but ended up feeling aimless afterwards, having a bit of a ticked-that-box mentality. My epiphany – the nudge I got from TED radio hour – has made me realise that I do want to compete again. Not to win, but to fail. Sound weird to you? Maybe it is, but I want to compete again and I want my kids to watch me do it. I want them to see me go as hard as I can, laid out on the floor until I physically cannot get that next rep. I want them to see me push myself to the limit and almost certainly fail to reach the podium because, hey, I’m honestly not the best out there. But when that happens, they won’t see me sulking in the corner. I’ll be attempting a smile through my sweaty, oxygen-deprived grimace; after all, I’ve given it my best, I’m in the best shape of my life and I’m free. Free to be a nerdy CrossFit misfit and free to fail.