The dinner: What mushy cauliflower in France taught me about failing forward

When I was 16, I travelled to France on a class trip. On my first night there, I excitedly waited to see what fancy French delicacies my host mother had prepared. Fresh baguettes? Cheese fondue? Chocolate and banana crepes?

My heart sank and stomach turned as she placed a plate in front of me heaped with mushy cauliflower — quite possibly my least favourite food.

I faced a serious dilemma. On the one hand, I could hear my mom’s voice in my head, telling me, “You friggin’ eat whatever they put in front of you.”

On the other hand, I faced the very real possibility of vomiting chunks of cauliflower all over the dinner table. In the end, fear of my mother’s wrath outweighed fear of barfing, and I got to work shoveling the nastiness down my throat.

Unfortunately, as soon as I finished, a second helping appeared. This was not an option. But because I was here to practice my language skills, I decided to decline the offer of more mush in their native tongue.

“No thank you, I’m full,” I said in what sounded to me like flawless French. I patted my belly for emphasis.

Nailed it, I thought.

It turned out I wasn’t as fluent as I thought.

On my last night there — after using the same “No thank you, I’m full” French phrase after every dinner—my host brother told me what I had actually been saying all this time…

“No thank you. I’m pregnant.”

Suddenly the confused looks I had been getting made a lot more sense. I could see how a 16-year-old boy announcing his pregnancy might be considered an unusual way to wrap up a meal.

The value of screwing up

Looking back, I probably used one or two words incorrectly — telling them I was full of baby rather than full of food. And although it was embarrassing, it was a good lesson in failing forward.

Despite this awkward gaffe, my French truly had come a long way. Being totally immersed in a foreign language was, undoubtedly, the best way to hone my language skills. I knew it was important to keep practicing, even after embarrassing setbacks like my dinner table revelation.

“Failing” or making mistakes can trigger a lot of anxiety and fear. As a result, we often try to avoid experiencing those feelings again by choosing not to try again. This unwillingness to keep at something for fear of failure builds on itself, trapping us in a downward spiral.

The more we fear failure, the less we try. The less we try something, the less competent we are at it, which only serves to reinforce our fear of giving it a shot in the first place.

Adam Khan, author of Self-Help Stuff That Works, says that “when you think sanely about failure, setbacks won’t stop you from trying again. So you try again, and by taking more action, you learn more, which increases your competence, and that is the real source of self-esteem.”

The author Ray Bradbury gives his own take on the subject. “The average young person you meet today seems to have the motto, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, stop right there,'” he says. “They want to start at the top of their profession and not to learn their art on the way up. That way they miss all the fun… Any man who keeps working is not a failure.”

Although embarrassed by the fact that I told my host family I was pregnant, I didn’t let that setback stop me from continuing to speak French. With that in mind, here are a few ideas to help ward off that fear of trying:

1) A good sense of humour goes a long way in building self-esteem. Being able to laugh at yourself is critical in getting over that fear of failure.

2) Practice with supportive people. Being around people who give constructive feedback, rather than just criticism, is very important.

3) Remind yourself that practice makes perfect. Confidence comes from the mastery of something and that expertise can only be achieved through practice and making mistakes.