A Hard Lesson about Failure: You Survive It

Rower on San Francisco Bay

I meant to write this post several months ago, when the subject was on my mind but I wasn’t blogging much, but for some reason it has come back to me this morning and is jumping the queue ahead of the other two posts I had planned for today. Skip it if you’re only interested in the e-cigarette thread.

I was obsessively terrified of failure my entire life. I’m sure that it came in part of being good at a number of things and therefore being expected to do well. My parents assumed I would get good grades (of course: I was their child). But I don’t know that I can really attribute my fear of failure, of disappointing people, to anyone else’s high standards.

I do know that if I wasn’t good at something right away, I would dismiss it as not worthy of my attention; the idea that one was supposed to start out unskilled and develop ability over time somehow never occurred to me. I had developed most of my skills through unconscious continual practice from such a young age that I didn’t realize that I was either learning or practicing. In my mind, you could do something or you couldn’t. And I preferred to ignore the existence of anything I couldn’t do, rather than face the shame of it.

I can’t remember how old I was the first time I heard “Casey at the Bat.” I do remember being horrified. Everyone is depending on the hero, and he fails. Tragedy. (Re-reading the poem as an adult, I can see that Casey’s failure was due in great part to overconfidence, but this passed me by at the time.) Unendurable, to fail when people are depending on you.

Inevitable, too, if you’re a human being.

As a compulsive reader, I excelled at spelling. I was therefore hot favorite to win the fourth-grade spelling bee. But I messed up on the first word they asked me to spell, one I’d run into an issue with when practicing, one that, ironically, would turn out to be a focal point of my later academic career: chorus. (No, I have not forgotten exactly where and how I screwed up.)

Losing a spelling bee—even in front of the entire school—is not the end of the world. No one is harmed by that. Nothing was really at stake. No one punished me for it.  No one else cares by the next day. But I was reduced to hysterical sobs for the rest of the day.

So when I say I had an obsessive fear of failure, I am not joking.

Many years later I listened to several audiobooks and workshop recordings by Caroline Myss. In one of them—perhaps more than one, but I listened to most of them several times—she imagines a conversation in which a person’s angel, impatient with that person’s resistance to spiritual development, says “I’ve had it up to here with your fear of failure. I’m going to make sure you fail but good and get it over with!”

That would be about it, yes.

When I moved to England in 1994, I did not intend to come back to the United States. I had very ambitious ideas for my academic career, and no intention of letting a minor thing like a chronic debilitating illness stop me. I was young, smart, full of ideas, and had had some early successes. Admittedly I’d been too sick to finish my PhD in frozen Michigan, but I’d get around that, right?

Um, no.

I did some very interesting and worthwhile things, but in the end, I got sicker, and I did not accomplish my goals, which might have been just slightly grandiose. I could blame everything on my health, but that’s too easy an out. I can’t know what I might have managed to do without that problem, but I do know that you can’t just walk into someone else’s territory and take over. It would have been a much bigger task than I thought even without that complicating factor, and I was young and inexperienced and knew far too little of the politics involved in what I wanted to do.

At the end of four years I had no money, no job, no degree, and no visa, so I had to leave England and return to the US, where I feared I would get no health coverage on account of my pre-existing and now very severe condition.

I came to the San Francisco Bay Area because everywhere else I’d ever lived was too cold, because UC Berkeley has a terrific Classics department, because my then-fiance (now husband) worked in 3D graphics, which was booming in SF at the time, and because I had family members who said I could live with them for a while. There are a heck of a lot worse places to be.

But when I arrived in SFO on October 28, 1998, my reason for being here was categorical failure. That tends to cast a pall over a person’s surroundings.

Things got worse before they got better. I was very sick and couldn’t get around easily. I didn’t know many people. I’d taken on a contract job to design an online course, and I was unable to complete it. In fact, I ended up having to return some of the money. More failure.

Yet no one died, even me. It was a miserable situation, and there were consequences, but the consequences were survivable. People were inconvenienced, but no one died on an operating table because I made a mistake.

Eventually I got help: medical help, therapy, support groups. I started to meet people. After about two years of not being able to work, I began slowly to be able to earn a living. It was not glamorous work, but that didn’t matter. I was on the road to being self-supporting, and I had begun to doubt that would ever be possible.

It’s been more than fifteen years now since I landed in California. I have a new career and a new life. And I realized something a few months ago: I don’t fear failure the way I did. I don’t enjoy failure, but I can look at the possibility and say “Been there, done that. No one bothered with T-shirts.”

I don’t know why I couldn’t take that lesson away from the spelling bee. I guess some of us just have to be hit over the head with things.

WordPress fangirl, ghostwriter, linguistic alchemist, podcast consultant, and accidental vapor advocate. Married with 2 cats.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for posting.
    I too have issues of emotional crisis with personal expectations. As someone who is “I’ll do it myself!” (because y’all are stupid assholes blah blah blah, unreliable, blah blah blah, because you are really screwed up adults, blah blah blah)
    It was as if my whole being relied on my being right the first time.

    There was a time growing up where there was an element of punishment involved, but even though that person is no longer around me, those negative thoughts are still on a loop just waiting to play at high volume. Luckily, I have been given the blessing/curse of stubbornness and have been able to manage to cope with the self-defeating, self-hating BS.

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