I heard the original line while driving to Los Altos, for the Romanian presidential elections, round one. My wife said it out loud in the car while we were discussing attitudes towards failing and where we had all grown up, back in Eastern Europe, and connected to a message on one of the leading party’s WhatsApp group about a candidate that received over 1.7M votes.
I thought then and there that I wanted to write about the topic, about our shared trauma, as a generation that grew up in fear of this dreaded failure. There’s more to it than that, but not for today.
Today, I was also prompted by something else. Another friend of mine wrote a beautiful post (in Romanian) about admiration and how rare of a muscle this was, and to some extent, still is where we come from.
While I was growing up, I didn’t understand until later that you had to hide any kind of weakness or hint of deviation from the norm. Others did, and the way they did it was directly linked to the ones that didn’t – like me. They learned to see a blush, a tremor in ones voice, a showing of emotion and to turn that against the “perpetrator”, thereby deflecting any attention on their own failures. It’s like they “felt” when someone around them could be perceived as failing and took the opportunity to point the first finger, and so positioning themselves in a safe space, as the accuser, not the accused.
Memories of public micro-moments where I failed, trying to ask girls out, speaking up against bullies, speaking out on topics I enjoyed, playing basketball, and later in work environments, both in companies and as an entrepreneur or consultant, they all share the same thing – one person or, usually, a group of people constantly looking for ways to tell you how you’re failing or you are going to fail.
It’s an incredibly toxic culture that pushes people to close up, create a large wall, a persona to hide behind and only come out when things are “perfect”, or not come out at all because they do not fell “worthy” or “enough” to face the scrutiny of the finger-pointers. This breeds insecurities and the imposter syndrome. This also breeds fake people, that are risk averse to anything that might tear down the wall or pierce the vail.
If I look inside and am very honest with myself, it was less about economic opportunity when I left Romania, it was more about escaping this cultural context where failure was ridiculed and constantly tracked. It still is, and probably will be until enough people speak up and tell those people off.
It’s ok to fail, it’s ok to try and not always win, it’s ok to show that you’re human.
I admire people who start something knowing that it’s highly likely they will fail.
Where I come from, it takes real guts to do that.