Columnist Lisa Papademetriou: A new spin on failure

  • Lisa Papademetriou.

For the Gazette
Published: 9/2/2019 1:18:05 PM

I was late to yo-yo class. Truth be told, I was conflicted about going in the first place. I’ve always been terrible at yo-yo. When I was a kid, my yo-yo would go down, then halfway up at a warped angle, then all over the place as I flapped my arm in a desperate attempt to make it do something like what I saw on the Duncan commercials. I was not laboring under the delusion that I might, as an adult, hold a latent talent for yo-yo — but that was the point. I was setting myself up for failure … on purpose.

The fact is, humans are wired to avoid pain, and failing hurts. When you’re learning something new, your brain experiences a small dopamine surge — a reward — whenever you do it right. But when you fail, dopamine crashes. Unfortunately, the very real fact remains that the only way to get good at anything is to be terrible at it first, and this is one factor that often prevents people from taking creative risks. Knowing this, I wanted to practice failure to see if it could teach me anything.  

Northampton’s A2Z Science and Learning Store offers free yo-yo classes three evenings a week. I know you’re probably wondering, “Yes, Lisa, but do grown-up people take that class?” The answer is a resounding … kind of.

Technically, adults are allowed at the class. But the day I walked in, the only other adults seemed to be either a) employed by the store or b) dads enjoying quality time with children. I was the only single grown-up lady with a handbag.

 An employee kindly offered me a yo-yo and did a very convincing job acting like it was perfectly normal that a middle-aged woman had a sudden need to master the yo-yo arts. He gave me a card that listed beginner tricks. The first one was called Wind Up, and I had a vision of something that would really wow the neighbors, but it turns out that this is actually just winding the yo-yo. The second trick was “Sleeper.” This is basically just making the yo-yo go down, letting it spin, giving it a yank to come up again, and catching it in your hand.

A small boy next to me was working on a complicated trick. “How long have you been doing yo-yo?” I asked. He looked at me, hesitated a moment, and then said, “About a month.” Then he moved away, clearly mindful of Stranger Danger. 

I was failing already! Um, yay?

I turned my attention to the yo-yo. I was having the same trouble I had in the 1980s: The thing wouldn’t come up properly. 

The store employee showed me again and explained I had the string positioned incorrectly. Also, more wrist motion. I tried again. Almost got it that time, I told myself. Keep going.

Most of the yo-yo students and teachers were using yo-yos that weren’t connected to the string. This made it possible to shoot it into the air and catch it again, or even to flip the yo-yo to someone else, who could catch it on their own string. The employee who had helped me had a vibrant blue one. Every now and again, he would try a trick, and the yo-yo would fall on the carpet. He never seemed to give it a second thought; he just picked it up and tried again. 

Down. Spin. Yank up. Yes! Down. Spin. Yank up. Ugh; what happened? 

After 20 minutes of this, I began to be able to tell when I hadn’t quite hit it right. And I could tell when I had. It felt different. 

Down. Spin. Yank up. Yes! Down. Spin. Forget it; that’s not going to work. Down. Spin. Yank up. Yes!

“You’re doing really well,” the store employee told me. “It took me a week just to learn that.”

“Yes, but he was 6,” said one of the dads.

“Does being 6 make it harder or easier?” I asked. Nobody seemed sure.

By the end of class, I felt I had a handle on my first trick. All I had to do was fail. And fail. And look like an idiot. And fail some more. 

And then … success! 

Writers often ask me how to keep from getting discouraged when they experience rejection. This is the answer: Failure is part of the process and is an essential teacher. The trick is in trying to think of it that way. Sometimes the yo-yo clatters to the floor; that’s fine. 

Wind it up, and let it go.

Lisa Papademetriou is a writer and the founder of, a tool designed to help writers improve motivation and organization.


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