One Success Feeds the Ego, Consistent Success Breaks It Down
Two weeks ago, Jamie and I were on a hike in Parque Arví in Medellin, and I decided to stop and climb a beautiful, gigantic tree. Maybe that wouldn’t be a big deal to a lot of people, but it is to me. As a kid, I was terrified of climbing trees though I so badly wanted to do it. This was the story for me with many things.
I shared this photo and Facebook post about the experience (click “See More” to read the whole thing):
I’ve been facing my fears. And, as I mentioned in that post, I’ve been doing karaoke.
When Jamie and I first arrived in Medellin, we were invited to a karaoke night. We went. I got nervous. I hummed and hawed about which song to sing. I put down Sam Smith’s I Know I’m Not the Only One. I got even more nervous waiting for my name to be called.
Historically, I’ve had some trouble with starting off on the correct key when singing karaoke. I get all worked up. I overthink it. I start off wrong and can’t change. Well, it wasn’t like that this time. It actually went well.
It was so thrilling to have people cheer throughout my performance. It was so heartwarming to be able to sing the same way in front of people as I can with myself. It was so exciting to come off stage to be met with pats on the back, smiles, congratulations.
At some point, this wouldn’t have been a possibility. I wanted to sing so badly, but I hardly practiced. I believed good singing was something that a person either could or couldn’t do. Sometimes, I’d sound decent, and I’d think I was one of those special people. Often, I’d do poorly, and I’d lament about not being the chosen one.
What held me back from practicing was fear. Fear of not being good enough. Fear of being judged. Fear of being seen. Fear of being imperfect.
I’ve been on a long journey of facing my fears, including public singing. A few years ago, I made this video that documented me working up the courage to record myself.
Honestly, I don’t know how many times I’ve cringed when thinking about my singing performance in that video. It wasn’t great. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to be vulnerable, show up exactly as I was, and accept what came out.
And you know something? It worked. After I made that video, I started practicing more often. I got a few apps to help me. I started playing guitar again. I showed my music to Jamie. I started leaving the door open when I was practicing. I recorded myself a few times and showed my mom. I performed for my family.
Throughout this journey, I’ve noticed a consistent tendency for me to sing better alone than around others (except Jamie because I’ve done it around him so many times by now).
This is why that karaoke night gave me such an unbelievable rush! I had finally done it. Not only had I practiced a song to the point that I could sing it well, but I also managed to do it in front of a group of people!
So, two weeks later, when the event happened again, we went back. I was nervous, but I was also excited. Imagine, two successes in a row!
Shortly after we arrived at the karaoke bar, someone we met last time told his friend that I was a good singer. At those words, I froze.
“I’m really inconsistent,” I bumbled, trying to remove the pressure that had suddenly wrung its hands around my neck.
“I’m sure you’ll be great,” he said.
“But I’m not sure,” I laughed.
As the night went on, and my song came up, I wasn’t as nervous as last time. I thought maybe I’d tackled my public singing fears. I went up to the stage bravely and… totally bombed.
It’s hard to describe the disappointment I felt as I got off the stage. The people around me smiled and said it was great, but comparing the responses with last time, I quickly learned the difference between polite acknowledgements and genuine praise.
The show went on. My mind raced. What happened? Was it the wrong song? Was there too much pressure? Why did I think I could do Adele? Ugh. I should have just done the same song as last time or a song I had practiced more. And I knew I was off from the moment I started. Why couldn’t I have just fixed it?
The head buzz was overwhelming for a few minutes, but slowly, it subsided. I told myself I did as well as I could have. I told myself it was okay to not be consistent, that inconsistency is just a part of learning to master something. I told myself it was okay to fail and that I’d try again.
I relaxed. I got out of my head and back into the world. I watched other people’s performances. Some did well. Others didn’t. And when they didn’t, I didn’t run up to them demanding to know why they hadn’t done better. That would be absurd. So why did I do it to myself?
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my self-judgment and my fears have been fueled mostly by perfectionism. For all those years, I thought I could find the one trick to unleash my inner singer. I thought I could defeat the one fear that would unblock me from performance anxiety. I thought I needed to break through the barrier of public performance, and once that barrier was down, it would stay down.
But the truth is: process is slow, messy, and unpredictable. It’s not a straight line. It’s a zig-zag. And it’s bound to be full of mistakes.
When Jamie was younger, he used to skateboard, so sometimes, we watch kids skateboarding in parks. It always amazes me how these kids are out there failing over and over publicly. Out of 100 attempts, they succeed only a handful of times; surrounded and watched by people, they keep going anyway.
To me, this used to feel inaccessible. Not only did I not want to fail in front of people, I also didn’t want to fail, period! Slowly, I’ve embraced the importance of failure. As a writer, I’ve grown, which means my old writings sometimes feel like mistakes. But they weren’t. They were steps on the ladder of progress.
I’ve also learned to fail from yoga. I was terrified of being upside down as a kid, so I couldn’t do gymnastics, although I wanted to. Now, I’m learning to do handstand. A few months ago, I learned headstand. It’s been terrifying, thrilling, and exciting all at once. And I’ve directly experienced the importance of failure to building consistency. I need to know what makes me fall in order to know what makes me stay upright.
Climbing trees is the same way. It’s not possible to do it perfectly. To know how to balance, I have to lose balance. To know where to grab, I have to know where not to grab. Learning requires mistakes.
But I do yoga by myself. I write by myself (although I share it publicly). I can wait until everyone is gone until I climb a tree. Public singing is different. By its very definition, it requires an audience. It is more like what those skateboarders are doing: practicing skills, yes, but also practicing failing in public.
The morning after my karaoke failure, I woke up, remembered my performance, and cringed. I cringed like I had cringed so many times at that singing video. But then, I felt another emotion that surprised me: pride. For a brief moment, I actually felt proud to have failed in public. If I can do that without falling apart, I thought, that means I’m doing well at being kinder to myself.
Every time I put myself into these situations, my self-judgment flares up. And every time my self-judgment flares up, I get the chance to navigate my self-talk with grace—not ignoring it and pushing it down, but also not submitting to it and falling into shame. I get the chance to observe my thoughts, observe the feelings they trigger, and make choices about how I’ll interpret the situation.
If I were to stay in my comfort zone and not allow myself to make mistakes, fail publicly, and look incompetent, I would be right back to where I had started: ruled by perfectionism.
So next time karaoke night rolls around, I’m going to try again. Maybe I’ll do well, maybe I won’t. Either way, I will learn. Because the truth is: succeeding once can happen by accident, but succeeding consistently is a matter of practice, dedication, and mastery.
There’s a difference between building up my ego and building up my skills. This is exactly what I went through with learning to ride a bike. I thought I’d learned just because I did it once. But I didn’t. Succeeding once feeds the ego, but succeeding consistently breaks the ego down because it’s impossible to achieve mastery without failure. Mastery requires requires a commitment to something more than looking good.
And I’m committed. I’m in this life to learn, to grow, to experience. I have wasted so much time already by putting my self-image above my journey of self-discovery. No more. I will try. I will fail. I will laugh. I will cry. But I will get back up. And I will never stop trying.