learning to fail

I didn’t learn how to deal with failure until I was 23. It was a hard lesson, and one that I wish I had learned sooner. If you really want to humble somebody who has always been a star academic? Boot them out of the school system and let them fall flat on their face as they grapple with the fact that the real world is nothing like school.

This probably began with my mega middle child syndrome. MEGA. I’m number 2 of 6 now, but in my formative years I was number 2 of 3 and that never wore off. You know the stereotype: the middle kid strives to please in order to stand out between the oldest and the baby. My older sibling had a childhood illness, my younger sibling was the only boy, so I think my self-imposed drive for achievement was inevitable. The real conflict was that I also had massive mortification at the thought of appearing egotistical, so I simultaneously desired to EXCEL IN ALL THINGS while also NOT HAVE ANYONE MAKE A BIG DEAL ABOUT IT.

By junior high my classmates made a game out of trying to find out my test scores, because while they would compare answers I would silently guard my paper and refuse to admit that yes, I got an A+. I will never forget the moment in 8th grade when a boy who was struggling in math failed a test and yelled at me, “I BET YOU GOT 100%!” That really cemented my neurosis. I wanted to be the best, but jeez I didn’t want anyone else to feel bad about it! In an earlier instance of me wildly overthinking the matter, I won a D.A.R.E. essay contest and then lost my nerve and didn’t give my parents the invitation to the award ceremony. Somehow in my mind that would have been showing off. So then when the ceremony came around and everybody’s parents were there but mine, I was pretty sad!

Once I reach a particular bar, it is impossible to achieve anything less without feeling like an abject failure. For example, once I achieved straight A grades in junior high, the slightest dip was absolutely unacceptable. It took me until freshman year of college to get a B+ again and I totally lost my shit. Outrageous levels of meltdown. Crying on the phone meltdown. Wondering what I was doing in college meltdown.

[Aside: Though to be honest, I still don’t think I deserved that B+! I will be angry to the grave! The B I got the following year, in a writing tutor course–okay that one was deserved, I don’t have the patience to be a tutor. But the intro English course? DAMN THAT TEACHER’S ASSISTANT! I was simultaneously taking an upper division literature class and I aced it! ACED IT!]


Here’s another embarrassing example. In fourth grade I joined an advanced placement program. We met once a week to get extra lessons from a rotating selection of teachers, just oddball stuff to keep us from getting bored academically. One week we had a math teacher explain ratios to us. There wasn’t a test. There wasn’t any work beyond what we did in class that day, and what we did in class was build a three dimensional kite out of straws and tissue paper to demonstrate using ratios to build things at scale. Welp, I didn’t entirely understand the concept. Unacceptable!! I had a complete meltdown at home that night because clearly I couldn’t be in this class and omg I’m so stupid why don’t I understaaaand. My mom talked me out of dropping the class (thanks, mom!) and that was that. But this tendency to freak out and want to quit as soon as something got difficult stuck around. I did not know how to deal with failure, so the obvious solution was to work my butt off at the stuff I could do, and avoid all the stuff I couldn’t do.

So now we’ve come back around to the total failure that was 2008-2009. I worked so hard to do perfectly in school (I had a grades-based scholarship in addition to my preexisting perfectionism) that I didn’t have time to do the things that would actually transition me out of school, like taking internships or other real world training. I moved home, utterly humiliated about being an unemployed college graduate, and then moved out again, even more humiliated about being a multi-minimum-wage-job-working graduate. To cap it off, I was also in a total failure of a relationship depressing for its own reasons. So, you know, my worst fear realized: I was a failure.

Long story short, I dug myself out of it. I worked. And worked. And worked. And got myself single (briefly!). And I did a lot of soul searching and research and picked out an online graduate program. This time when I went back to school I juggled it with employment and volunteerism and by the time I graduated again I knew what I wanted to do and had the experience to do it.

Failing was the best thing that could have happened to me. Once I learned how to recover from failure, I gained the courage to do things that had previously been impossible to attempt. I got a handful of short stories published (previously impossible because the submission process involves a whole lot of rejection). I got jobs in my actual field (previously impossible because the application and interview process of non-minimum-wage jobs involves a whole lot of rejection). You get the point.

And here’s the kicker: now that I understand it, I completely embrace this part of me. I love my middle child-ness. I’m grateful that my perfectionism pushed me as far as it did before I had to take the wheel, because let’s be honest: when I “worked my way up” I had the good fortune to start with a free undergraduate degree and roommates to help keep a roof over my head.

I now know how to manipulate my fear of failure into productivity. I set big goals, and then I go wildly overboard in order to meet them–and when I don’t quite make it, I laugh it off and appreciate the fact that I got a lot farther than I would have if my goal had been set lower. Okay, first I mope around the house mentally playing the pipe organ like the Phantom of the Opera for a few days, and then I laugh it off.

Oh and these days I act like an egomaniac for comedic purposes (and also because obviously I am good at everything and never wrong), which my husband and siblings think is sooooo funny.

Because I’m also hilarious.