Saturday, November 1, 2008

"Failure as an event" ~ Seth Godin

I've been reading Seth Godin's blog a lot recently and he recently wrote a post about the dreaded "F" word - Failure. We shutter at the very thought of it. We are told this is the last thing on Earth we EVER want to do or be. It's a death sentence. Seth has a different perspective, and in the economy we're living in, his view is critical to our long-term health. For Seth, failure is learning. 

I thought a lot about this yesterday as I worked away at my desk, thinking about the 10% of my company that was be laid off this week. I'm sending those people all of the good energy I can scrounge up, and I am incredibly grateful to have my job. A number of my classmates have lost their jobs, some of them having to leave the country because their visas expired without a company to sponsor them. I've been thinking a lot about them lately, praying for them, hoping that even in this unfortunate economy they can find a way through. I've been wondering how I'd feel if I was the one who had lost my job. Would I feel like a failure? And if I did, what would I do to turn it into a learning, as Seth suggests? And this led me to think about the times I've failed, and what that failure meant to me.

At first I had difficulty thinking of any time I've failed - my mental blocking mechanism was running on overdrive to keep those failures at bay. But they're important. So I kept digging into the recesses of my mind, and the failures were there, in abundance. Here are some of the big ones and what they taught me:

My college running career
I had dreams of running in college though I knew no one makes a living after school doing that. It prompted me to consider applying to Penn because of the Penn Relays, the world-class running event hosted by the school. My junior year in high school I injured myself so badly that I had trouble walking for the entire cross-country season and the Spring track season. My hope for a college running career went down the drain. But Penn stayed on the list of schools I applied to. I was accepted on merit, not as a runner. And it became my alma mater. I learned the very valuable lesson of diversification. I was a good runner, but I was an even better student. I worked as hard on the track as I did in the classroom. And that diversification saved me.
But Princeton was my first campus crush. I wanted in, badly. I was going to study engineering and walk the same grounds as Einstein, my scientific hero. It was love at first site. But the school didn't love me back. I cried, a lot. For the first time in my life, someone told me I wasn't smart enough. And that was crushing. And very good for me, long-term, because it tempered by dangerously large ego and taught me how to rise above defeat with grace.  

Penn, at first
I got two C's my first semester at Penn in courses for my major. I had gotten one B+ in school in my entire life prior to college, and that crushed me. But C's??? What was going on here? I was dealing with the fall out of losing my dad, and being a very poor kid at a very rich school. I was WAY out of my league. These kids were smart, much smarter than me, well traveled, ambitious. I had to sprint to keep up with their leisurely strolls in every facet of my college career. I was an alien on those grounds until I found a niche in the theatre community that would change the course of my life, even though I didn't know it at the time. I learned how to be flexible, how to adjust and change course. I got comfortable with being uncomfortable. I gained a work ethic that has served me well for over a decade now. And because I knew how it felt to not feel accepted, I gained an empathy for outsiders and learned to value, appreciate, and seek out extreme diversity.   

My relationship with my dad
I lost my dad when I was a teenager. We never got along. Ever. And he passed away before I had the chance to understand him and his perspective. We never made amends, and we never will. His death taught me about forgiveness, of others and of myself. And there is no time like the present to offer and ask for forgiveness. His short life taught me about the urgency of living. And the massive disappointment that he faced in his life, that ultimately destroyed him, taught me that we must put aside failure, and move forward, grateful for what we do have rather than dwelling on what we don't have. 

Several long-term romantic relationships
If I had married any of the boyfriends I thought I might marry, I'd be divorced 5 times over by now. It is only now that I really feel I have come into my own, understand who I am, and have the confidence to live the life I imagine. Marrying any of my past boyfriends would have been an enormous mistake, and I am grateful that those relationships failed me before I had the chance to fail them (which surely would have happened.)

Since I was a little girl, I have wanted a seat on that couch on the Today show. And I got my chance to be within arms-length of that couch during my second year at Darden when I went to NBC to interview for their MBA rotation program. I had imagined myself walking into 30 Rock everyday, donning my badge. I imagined myself whipping around that office, changing the face of network television. I was going to be a star. (Seeing a pattern yet?)

And then I went through 8 hours of demeaning interviews by people who thought I wasn't good enough to join them from the moment I walked in the door. They were the worst interviews I've ever had. And it was humiliating. I had spent months preparing for those interviews, and all for naught. An alum brought me in as a favor, knowing I'd never make the cut. I was ashamed and embarrassed, and it was the best thing that ever happened to my career. I reached for something far beyond my grasp, and I missed. As a result, I went to work for a retail company after a very long job search, and my boss there has become an invaluable mentor to me. I discovered the world of innovation and product development, and picked up the trail of a path that I am thrilled to be on. Again, I learned about the power of humility, the courage it takes to hold your head high and look failure in the eye, and move on with continued confidence. 

All of these failures taught me a few valuable lessons:
The universe knows your destiny better that you do
Preparation and grace are key to moving forward
The world is a very generous place - it will give you the same lesson over and over again until you learn it and the don't need to go through it any more

Seth is right - failures are moments of learning. And while in the moment, it may be difficult to be grateful for failures, we can take comfort in the fact that accepting and acknowledging their existence helps us to leave them behind in search of better times ahead.    

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