The Art of Failure
When I was a kid, my family used to joke and call me "Sainted Sarah". I don't think it was ever meant as an insult - I just was a high achiever and typically tried to "do the right thing". I honestly don't know why I am that way - I was just born with it. And it never really bothered me - I was proud of it.
It wasn't until I was in my early 20s that I realized my strive for perfection may have its downside. During a family counseling session, the counselor asked me to talk about a failure I had. Without hesitation, my response to her was "I don't have any". The look she gave me made me realize I had given the "wrong" answer but for the life of me, I couldn't figure out why. I really answered that question with what I thought was a real answer. Sure, things hadn't always gone my way, but it was the result of someone who had failed me (the coach, the teacher, the family member) - not anything I had done.
I think I've only recently begun to figure out what the counselor was trying to get across to me that day in her office all those years ago. Today I can proudly say that I spent my 20s and early 30s failing, and failing hard. At 24, I was on the brink of bankruptcy and I learned that having debt is quietly terrifying. No one likes to talk about money and while I always considered myself smart, there were some basic life skills I lacked - like don't spend more money than you make. And when bills come in, you pay them in the order of their due date. Simple things that I never learned. So, I consulted a credit counselor, counted quarters, drove a 98 Honda Civic that sounded like a jet engine, got a roommate, and took side jobs watching dogs to make some extra cash. And I can proudly say that (with some help) I avoided bankruptcy, was able to keep my house and paid back $60k in credit card debt in 5 years. I failed and I failed hard. But I learned more from that failure than I did from any of my other successes. I learned how strong and resilient I was. I even ended up getting married during that time and refused to let my husband pay for any of it. I got myself into that mess and I was going to prove to myself that I could get out of it. And wow, did it feel great to come back from that financial mess.
And of course, my failures didn't end there. In my 30s, I've taken some risks with my career, switching jobs for more challenging roles. At the last job, I was laid off after only 15 months. Me! Someone who (in my opinion) is the awesomeness of awesome! I don't get fired! But looking back on it now, getting laid off was one of the best things that happened to me. While I was still employed, I was miserable and I was going to try to fix it! If they hadn't let me go, I'd probably still be there. I've grown so much since I've left that I can't even recognize the woman I was. (Talk about short term growth!)
As I've gotten used to embracing the "Fail Fest" of life, I can honestly say that I'm starting to learn the value in it. I'd rather try and fail than to live my life in such a small world that I never try anything new and as a result, don't learn anything new and never grow. In fact, it reinforces my senior quote from my high school yearbook (which of course I failed and misquoted to Nelson Mandela at the time):
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others." - Marianne Williamson, self-help author who originally wrote the words in her 1992 best-selling book, “A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles.”
But honestly, it wasn't until I started talking about my failures with close friends and family that I overcame that fear of failure and realized my failures could help others. I know it is pointless to try to stop people from making mistakes (we all need to fail in our own ways to learns our life lessons and create pivot points in our life journey); however, having stories to share of overcoming those obstacles (and fears) offers solutions for others so they don't get stuck. And it wasn't until I overcame my shame/guilt/embarrassment and shared my stories of overcoming my failures that I recognized the power in embracing it. The amazing sense of freedom and empowerment that can be achieved by putting those failures out into the world and owning them is something I never imagined 15 years ago.
While you reflect on your own failures and the effect those failures have had in your life, my hope is that through reading this, you too might consider sharing your story to help others in your life. Take it from me, the former "Sainted Sarah", sainthood isn't all it's cracked up to be. Life is messy and the more we embrace it (and stop trying to hide it) the happier we will be.