Failure and I are intimately acquainted.
I’m a Virgo. To people who don’t know the horoscope, it’s a difficult sign. We’re not like the fiery hot Scorpio, or the flowy Aquarius, or the Aries leader. Nope. I’m a follower. A perfectionist. A people pleaser.
And I despise failure of all types in my life.
I remember being terrified of failing in my youth. If a teacher called on me, I’d be paralyzed in my chair, shaking in fear at the idea I could answer wrong. To me, being wrong equaled death. It equaled embarrassment and humiliation. To be wrong was to FAIL.
It got worse as I aged. As a teen, I remember I had a terrible crush on a guy in my math class. I had arranged for my friend to talk to his friend to find out if maybe he kind of liked me and wanted to ask me to the school dance. It took me forever to get to that point, and I remember waiting for my friend to call and give me the final verdict. I squirmed with discomfort but felt proud of myself for trying. When she called and let me know gently that the guy didn’t like me, I was devastated. I think I went to bed for days. All I could think of is how ugly and stupid and dumb I was because he didn’t like me.
All I could think of is how I was a big fat failure.
There was no other task master harder than me. I held myself accountable for success in school, work, friendship, love, etc. It was a difficult road to follow, and eventually, I ended up having a type of a nervous breakdown until I turned to yoga and meditation and found myself chanting on top of a mountain seeking peace for my soul.
But that’s another story.
Back to failure. The only thing that never made sense was how I dealt with failing in my writing career. When I received my first writing rejection, I was stung but refused to quit. Maybe it was the challenge. Maybe it was because writing was the only true passion and joy in my life and I needed it to live. For whatever reason, I was hard on myself with the rejections but I just worked harder to succeed. Along the way, the rejections almost crippled me, but I was like a damn dog with a bone and refused to settle until my books were published.
It took me over twenty years to actually succeed where I could quit my day job and write full time to support myself. And I’m not going to lie. It felt damn good. Success was a heady pill, and I swallowed it whole and gorged unapologetically.
Eventually, as humans do, it wasn’t enough. I needed to reach the next goal and touch the next brass ring. The market changed and got saturated. Sales fumbled. Royalty checks decreased. We needed to work harder to issue more books, and work smarter for discoverability. With all the choices in the world and unlimited potential, many stumbled because when the blank page and endless possibilities is in front of us, it’s scary as hell.
My failures kept on coming. When I found myself weeping hysterically one night in bed because I hadn’t hit the NYT list and felt like a mockery of the author everyone believed I was, I realized I couldn’t do this to myself any longer.
Somehow, I needed to become friends with failure. I needed to embrace it, take it deep, and transform it into an element I could live with on a daily basis. I was so tired of fighting those dark feelings. No one else was putting such expectations and punishment on myself except…myself.
We all have hot buttons we need to work on in life. One of mine is the voice that murmurs consistently that I have FAILED. So, I began to take apart what failure means in life and to me. Sometimes to make peace, you need to dismantle it to see how it works. Here’s my list:
Failure says you tried something. Usually, it’s something that is terrifying. Which means…
Failure says you’re brave. Not fearless. Brave. Big difference.
Failure says you’ve grown. You grow more with failure than success. Success is easy. Failure is hard. You need to reach deep and figure out what went wrong and what you’re going to do about it. You need to make peace with it, get stronger, and move forward.
Failure says you’re human. You’re not supposed to get it right all the time. Failing leads to hidden opportunities you cannot see at the moment, but makes sense in the future. Not getting one job means a better one may be meant for you down the road. I’ve told my boys the most important thing they can do in this life for themselves is try as hard as they can. Whatever fallout happens, they’ll be able to live with.
Failure says you’re interesting. I like to write about characters who have failed in many aspects of their life because they jump off the page. Who’d want to read about a hero or heroine who had an easy life, made all the right decisions, and is pretty much satisfied with their lot in life every day?
Umm, not me. I’ll pass.
Failure says you’re learning. Figuring out what works and what doesn’t. Figuring out if it’s something you can live with or not.
Failure lurks around every hidden corner. Bad reviews, not making a list, rejections, not making enough money, not getting the job, being wrong in school, getting your heart broken, being told no, not getting picked for a team or promotion, the list is endless.
When I feel helpless under the crippling defeat of failure, I remember all these things. I remember how important failure is in life. It’s part of the yin/yang of the universe – pain/pleasure, light/dark, and joy/sadness. You simply cannot have one without the other.
After a failure there is finally space to breathe. To re-set. To take account of what your life is, where you are, where you want to be. To accept who you are.
And to treasure the successes with more fragility and gratitude.
I look at my beloved sons and see a future before them I hope is filled with all types of failures, because within each distinct failure is the seed of all things raw and hard and painfully, exotically beautiful.
Do you have a hard time with failure? How do you deal with it? Come share with me.