"Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better."
- Samuel Beckett
I was reading an article in the New York Times titled, "Talking About Failure is Crucial for Growth," and while the piece was primarily about enhancing the workplace through engaging in an open dialogue about failures, I was struck by this:
"Even though most people prefer to process failure internally and quickly move on for feard of causing a scene or seeming unprofessional, taking the time to reflect on and communicate about unwanted outcomes can go a long way in creating more congenial, trusting and ultimately productive workplaces."
And so, no, I have no office or co-workers these days, but a year into being out on my own and hustling for work, and after so much failure leading up to all of that, it seems like a good time to reflect on and communicate about my "unwanted outcomes," and so why not do so here, publicly, with you, my people.
I suppose like many of us, my relationship to failure is complicated and at times, much of the time, this relationship has been self-serving, furthering a personal narrative I want to tell about myself, how little failure bothers me, that I'm cool, resilient and always pushing above all that puny mortal nonsense.
But that's not always true.
A book review that does not happen, a gig I intensely pursue, but lose, an opportunity to speak or read or faciltate somewhere that I really want to have a presence, gain prestige, or meet cool people, that does not pan out, can really hurt, and much of the time I have to move on, there are no answers for why things didn't happen the way I wanted them too and there is no benefit to lingering on things I can't make sense of.
But, that isn't aways true either,
Failure as a tool for learning can be incredibly valuable, and what I've been thinking about lately is how if I had been more self-aware and more present in recent years, and if I could have better recognized the bigger picture, maybe I could have acted differently, or at least failed better.
More importantly, while some one-off failure or another can hurt, but is at least somewhat contained, and transitory, I suffered through a string of failures and that calls for some kind of reckoning.
Given the time of year, some may say that one can be thankful for one's failures, and I think this is true, but with a caveat, it's hard to be thankful in the moment, and so much of this is about the moment, getting some distance from it, seeing it more clearly, trying to understand it, and then moving forward, better, calloused and kicking-ass.
So with all of this in mind, I would like to publicly process and share a personal chronicle of failure, precipitated by, but not only related to, being fired from my long-time place of employment in May 2016, and my failure to make the subsequent full-time opportunities I pursued anything but... well, failures:
Failure to leave a situation which was clearly heading toward a certain outcome, which is also a failure to embrace the writing on the wall, which I clearly read and said out loud to myself and others. A new boss was coming in to my long-time place of employment. Every time a new boss had come in prior to this, top people were let go. New people want new people, their people. I knew that this time I was going to be that person. Maybe there are other reasons I was let go, maybe it wasn't just suddenly being redundant as I was informed of at the time. I don't know, and I've never heard what those reasons are, but that doesn't matter. I knew what was coming, and while I thought I would have more time and be allowed to exit gracefully, there was no reason to assume that.
Failure to truly search for other work. So, I knew something was coming and I failed to embrace it. One way I failed to do that was aggressively search for new work. I looked, but I didn't cast a wide net, work LinkedIn, hit networking opportunities or send emails to everyone I had ever known or met. I tried to make myself aware of what might be out there and that doesn't count. Still, if I'm truly honest with myself, I hadn't been happy with my day-to-day work for some time, another failure in and of itself. The work was important, the people inspiring, I really admired my long-time boss, most of the opportunities I had were cool, and I worked hard, but it was time for something new. I had been in my position for eight years, following eight years in a completely different position and my ability to keep things fresh had run their course. Also, if I'm really honest, I'm not sure I even wanted to work in an office full-time any more, anywhere and for anyone.
Still, I can't ignore the failure to keep recreating myself. I never grew less curious or excited about ideas and making change, working with interesting people and trying to figure out how to connect with them. And I was always good at diving into things and when I was struck by them, then integrating them into the work. Social media. Movement-building. Grant writing. Translating research. Running shit. Designing presentations and programs and engaging with people who want to do cool shit. But how does one keep growing and creating new opportunities? It's about making new experiences, finding new jobs and recreating one self based on one's strengths and interests. Did I fail to pursue new stuff and new opportunities? I did not. But did I push myself and those I worked for and with hard enough to make concrete opportunities for me where I had to recreate myself to survive and keep growing? I definitely did not.
Intrinsic to this failure was also a failure to eschew the hold that my benefits had on me, paid vacation time, and lots of it, health insurance, not always great, or cheap, but available, paternity leave, a 401(k), raises, initially, a steady paycheck, telecommuting, sick time, work travel. These things are about privilege certainly, but also about locking-down a job I liked, earning these benefits, and holding on to them, and then being scared about losing them for something else, somewhere else, where the benefits might not be as good, or flexible. As a parent these things took on more weight, and appropriately at that, but I also didn't want to let go of the stability and flexibility I had earned, and I failed to challenge my own fears around what it might look like to lose some of that.
There is also the failure to suppress my ego and needs and accept a lower-paying job, something I've now done twice over the last twenty years for jobs I really wanted (and once, for one I didn't want as much, but still wanted), most recently during the last two years as I was mucking about. Yes, there are bills to pay, and yes, an ever-increasing salary is a metric of success. And yes, not everyone has the liberty to take any job one wants to pursue just because it might make one happy. But how much does a lower salary translate to per month anyway, and if one can, can one not make other budgetary adjustments as needed? I failed to ask those questions.
And there is definitely a failure to take a leap. I don't know if Michael Jordan was right when he said, if you leap, the net will appear, much less if I trust that like Indiana Jones the bridge one needs will materialize if one takes the first step into the abyss, but I do know that even before I lost my job, and especially when I did lose it, not to mention when the full-time work I first chased after that wasn't working out, I didn't believe that if I hustled I would find cool freelance and contractual things to do that would keep me busy, keep me inspired and pay the bills. I don't know if fully leaping would have worked when I first waded back into the job force and wanted to try and hustle full-time. Things weren't popping when I took more tentative steps, and now in the last year things mostly have. There has been a lot of luck involved, and timing, and the right opporunities have come my way. But while things have popped, it's also true that I leapt, in a big way, trusted I could figure it out and here we are.
Failure to embrace, even force, patience. When one suddenly loses a job, and are truly unemployed for the first time in one's adult life, it can be really hard to be patient and search for the right thing. It's scary, period, but was I patient enough when I first wondered if a true leap into full-time hustle might have worked? More importantly, when I was first unemployed, and full-time things started to present themselves, was I patient enough to wait for the search process to play out? Some opportunities were moving slowly, but they were moving, and then something came up out of nowhere, something big, and it wasn't the thing I wanted, but they wanted me, and there was promise. I could have waited, let that opportunity pass and truly allowed the game come to me. Again privilege. But I couldn't let myself see what would happen and I failed to trust the process and the so many things I was doing well.
Still, this particular decision, this impatience, was only exacerbated by a failure to trust my gut, and acknowledge how self-conscious I felt about my experience in pursuing this particular job. The interview for the job I accepted went well, but I didn't like the scene or the people I interviewed with. The office was quiet and the interviewers were restrained, stodgy. I wanted something with spark and youth, and It didn't feel right. But I felt that my reaction was at least partially ageist, plus I'd interviewed with unappealing people before and had always made it work. I focused too much on the latter though and I failed to accept that I didn't like how I felt there and should trust that.
A sub-failure in this case, was the failure to consider culture and fit. I didn't want restrained, but it was, and I didn't ask enough questions or talk to the rest of the team who weren't in the office the day I was there. The culture was not only stodgy though, but toxic, with people screaming at one another behind not so closed doors and talking about each other behind one another's backs in meetings, something I couldn't have anticipated and had never been around. And maybe that's normal at many places, and acceptable, but I didn't like it, and I didn't fit in. I had spent much of my work life fitting-in, but one doesn't always fit and not recognizing, or accepting that, is its own kind of failure as well.
A sub-, sub-failure was a willingness to accept opportunities to do things I didn't want to do, that I don't enjoy doing and may not be even be good at, while focusing on subject matter I didn't know enough about and ultimately wasn't around long enough to learn. And so there I was overseeing fundraising campaigns, managing databases, engaging in design work, while not having design skills and creating data-driven marketing plans. A lot of this came with a second full-time opportunity I pursued, and some, much of this I believed I could do no matter what. But much of it was not things I really wanted to do, I didn't do well and I honestly didn't trust or know myself well enough at the time to see this.
These sub-failures also point to my biggest failure during this time and even leading up to it:
There was a failure to understand what my true strengths and interests are and were. Said differently, I failed to remind myself what I feel passionate about. It was all so unplanned for so long, and as I ran down a path towards marketing and communications, with no public relations training, or true understanding of the science behind any of it, I got away from the things I now (re-)realize I do so well and love - strategy, facilitation, pulling stories from people's and organization's heads, and more than anything, idea-making, and making sense of what's out there, trends, culture, norms, research, how it all hangs together and what it takes to bend these ideas into a narrative that sings.
I was surrounded by good people on that last long job I was on and we were a good team, and there were many things I did well, but there were also many things they did well that I did not, nor that I needed to do because they were there and we worked so well together. On my own though, I couldn't make those things work, I didn't want to and I failed to execute them.
So, here I am now, after all of that, on my own, hustling, running, pitching, making things and failing everyday in lots of ways big and small. Failing as always, to get everything I want, or everything done, and failing to always believe in myself. But I'm also succeeding at any number of things, much of which is related to all that failing, but is also primarily related to leaping into opportunities, remembering who I am, finding people and situations where I fit, and doing new things, constantly, and with confidence, something I failed to remember I've always possessed.
You may wonder, as do I, what's next, and given that, I want to offer you, as well as me, a Check One's Failure checklist. You may also wonder what that entails. So, here you go:
(1) Reflecting on failure, the whys and hows. But also celebrating my successes.
(2) Doing my homework on how things work and applying that science to my work.
(3) Recognizing, then honing, my strengths and weakenesses, as well as not doing things I don't like to do.
(4) Focusing on cultural fit and trusting my gut.
(5) Staying curious, trying to grow, never losing a focus on what's new and happening, and what it all means.
(6) Asking for help.
(7) Thinking big, leaping, taking risks.
(8) Always pushing to do what feels important, good and fresh, knowing my value, embracing swagger, and getting paid for it, while not stopping, never stopping.
(9) Taking control of my day, and my narrative, embracing ritual, and striving for increased self-awareness.
(10) And ultimately failing better, building on the bad, and pushing for good.
All of which, is not bad, right?
I would add here, that I have big plans for 2019, more structure, more ideas, more change, more risk, more leaping, just more, and more on all that soon as well.