About a year ago my Crossfit coach, John, said something that didn’t make any sense to me at first, and then changed my entire approach to fitness and working out.

He told our class that the best athletes frequently fail their lift, and drop their weights. I didn’t understand what he was talking about. Why would the strongest athletes fail more often than anybody else? I went up to him after class and asked what he meant. He told me that the best athletes have more failed lifts and more drops than the rest of us because they constantly push their limits.

This struck me because I rarely dropped my barbell during a workout. I rarely failed. John’s comment made me realize that I wasn’t testing my limits. I was afraid that if I dropped my weights during class, I would look weak. I was playing it safe, protecting my image, and avoiding failure.

Because of my fear I wasn’t improving. I had stagnated.

This wasn’t the first time I had let my fear get the best of me. It happened during my college wrestling career. When I wrestled somebody who I thought was better than me, I played it safe and didn’t fully commit to the match.  The sad part is that usually, during the second or third round, I would realize that I was as good as my opponent and that I could actually win. So, I would actually start wrestling hard, but by that time I was behind on points and usually ended up losing.

My fear of public speaking paralyzed me for years. When I was in junior high school, I faked illness so I could stay home and avoid giving an oral report. This fear followed me into adulthood.  Just a few years ago, when I had to speak in front of a group, my heart would pound, my voice would crack and I would squeak out my speech and then sit down as quickly as possible.

More than anything else in my life, fear of failure has kept me stuck.

Rainer Rilke was a poet who lived about a hundred years ago. This guy had it all figured out. In his poem “The Man Watching,” he writes about how fear causes us to live small lives and how we can overcome this by embracing the very challenges that scare the shit out of us.

     What we choose to fight is so tiny!

What fights us is so great!

He says that life throws huge scary challenges at us all the time, but we do everything we can to avoid them. Instead, we seek out the easier challenges and smaller accomplishments. We choose to stay in our comfort zone.

     When we win it’s the small things,

and the triumph itself makes us small.

Like taking candy from a baby, our victories over small challenges make us small too.

Then Rilke writes about the time an angel appeared to challenge the wrestlers of the old testament.

     Whoever was beaten by this Angel…

went away proud and strengthened

and great from that harsh hand,

that kneaded him as if to change his shape.

These wrestlers had no illusions about the outcome of their struggle. They knew that if they accepted the angel’s challenge and stepped into the ring, they would get pummeled. They stepped into the ring anyway.

See, it wasn’t about winning. It was about testing themselves against an indomitable foe. These wrestlers knew that maximum effort in the face of certain defeat would forge them into stronger versions of themselves.

     Winning does not tempt that man.

This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,

by constantly greater beings.

Those who choose epic defeats over tiny victories are the very best of us. They are the leaders among us. They are the heroes.

Lately when I’ve had to choose between a safe weight for my workout and a weight I might drop, I’ve chosen the heavier weight. Maybe it’s too heavy and I fail. But maybe, I’m stronger than I thought. Either way, I’m OK with the risk.

The same choices await you. The angel is waiting. Will you step in the ring?