Monday, December 1, 2014

Everything I Know about Success I Learned from Failure

Five Life Lessons that Were Worth the Bruises

If you fall out of a standing bow pose, get right back in it!
You've got time.
I got rejected by Huffington Post today. It stung a little; I thought my essay was interesting and insightful, but their editors didn’t agree. Still, even as my lips curled into a slight frownie, I realized I was grateful for the pinch, the little reminder that I’m not going to win at everything, and even more importantly, that I don’t have to.

The rejection email served as a reminder of far bigger failures, not stings but major body blows. I’ve weathered some more gracefully than others. But without a doubt, each significant failure in my life led to important self-knowledge that has shaped me into the person I am today. As a quick aside, I’m well aware that every one of these failures could be hashtagged as #firstworldproblems. I’ve been truly blessed in my life with extraordinary opportunities.

Failure: When I was 17, I got a C in high school calculus.

What that meant in the short term: My poor performance in calculus destroyed any hope I had of accomplishing a major (at that point) life goal to graduate among the top ten students in my high school class.

What that meant in the long term: Absolutely nothing. I still got accepted to my first choice college with a full scholarship. And as an added bonus, I aced the AP Calculus test, so I didn’t have to take a single college math class.

Life lesson: When you give 100% and only earn a 78%, you should still be proud of your efforts. But also, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist if that’s not your calling.

Failure: When I was 25, I dropped out of a Ph.D. program in Classics after giving birth to my first son.

What that meant in the short term: I was so disappointed in myself for being unable to accomplish another (at that point) life goal, in part because of my own shortcomings as a scholar: in all honesty, I do not think I could have passed my Ph.D. language exams without significantly more effort than I was willing to expend. Also, I learned pretty quickly that I was not one of those moms who could “do it all,” juggling the demands of a rigorous academic program with the far more baffling demands of a colicky newborn baby and the attendant sleep deprivation.

What that meant in the long term: When I finally decided to return to graduate school at the age of 37, I was ready to study something that really held my interest and fit my skills: Organizational Leadership. My comprehensive exams a few weeks ago were by no means easy—I’m still biting my nails as I wait for the results. But I felt fluent in the language of change management and motivational theory in a way I never was with Latin or Greek. Also, my Classics training was not a waste of time: I learned rhetoric from Aristotle and Plato, and they proved to be pretty good teachers.

Life lesson: Sometimes it’s okay to quit. And you’re never too old to go back to school.

Failure: When I was 35, my 13-year marriage to the man I thought was the love of my life imploded.

What that meant in the short term: To say that I was devastated is an understatement. I’ve always been one of those people who believed that you marry one person, and you make it work. Worse, we had four children, ages 2, 3, 7, and 8. Feeling like I had failed my (then) husband was awful; feeling like I had failed my children was nearly unbearable.

What that meant in the long term: It took me several years of intense personal therapy and hard work to understand that while I certainly played a role in my marriage’s demise, it was not all my fault. I learned to value myself, to communicate more authentically, and ultimately, to love again.

Life lesson: Take a chance on second chances—but take the time to know—and love—yourself first!

Failure: Just a few weeks shy of my 40th birthday, I was fired from my dream job, and I learned I had stage 0 cervical cancer.

What that meant in the short term: On my 40th birthday, I was an unemployed single mother of four children with no health insurance and a cancer diagnosis! This had always been my greatest fear. And to my surprise, it turned out to be one of the greatest gifts I’d ever received from the Universe. I never would have gone to the doctor for a long overdue pap smear if I hadn’t been about to lose my benefits, so in a way, getting fired may have actually saved my life.

What that meant in the long term: For the first time since I became a mother, I had time for me. While the kids were at school, I did 60 days of hot yoga. I started blogging again. I took long walks and thought about gratitude. I had a minor successful surgical procedure. I volunteered in my kids’ classrooms, took my teenagers skiing, and treated the family to lots of home-cooked love. In fact, we still look back on those few months of unemployment with a bit of nostalgia. Now I’m in my dream job again—at a much more ethical organization.

Life lesson(s): Your job, even your dream job, does not define you. Also, if you’re a woman, get regular Pap tests.

Failure: On December 14, 2012, after 8 years of calls to the police, visits with numerous doctors and specialists, jail time, and hospitalizations, my son was in an acute care psychiatric hospital again. I had no idea how to help him.

What it meant in the short term: I was truly and completely helpless. And I did what I have often done, what I am doing now, in fact, when confronted with failure: I wrote it out. I told my truth. No mother wants to admit she can’t help her child. I admitted my helplessness to the world.

What it meant in the long term: We found help and hope. My son was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and the treatments are working. I also learned that I was far from alone in my perception of myself as a failure, but that in fact, the mental healthcare system was failing me and so many other families. While writing my book, The Price of Silence: A Mom’s Perspective on Mental Illness, I was able to find even more solutions to the heartbreak. I continue to advocate for children like my son and for moms like me.

Life lesson: Never give up on the people you love, even when you’re exhausted. They are worth your best, hardest fight. But it’s okay to admit you are tired and to ask for help when you’ve done everything you can do.

These five are just the big failures. In my life, as in most people’s lives, most blog posts don’t go viral. Most calls for change fall on deaf or ignorant ears. But these five big failures have taught me resilience. I’ve learned to take charge of my own life, to be honest with myself and others, and to ask for help when I need it.

A few hours after the HuffPost rejection, I got a call from a friend. He had just received copies of a new college textbook, The Elements of Argument, which includes essays by Michael Pollan, Hillary Clinton, Henry David Thoreau, and me. Another essay I wrote once upon a time, the one about my failure to help my son, was picked up for my Huffington Post debut under the title “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” Now it will be used to teach Aristotelian argument to students in college courses.

I’ve come full circle.


IdaGirl said...

You are such a great writer. To be included amongst HDT, Michael Pollan and one of my personal heroes, Hillary Clinton? Wow. Not to miss the point of your blog, which is a great reminder of the gifts in failure.

Unknown said...

Great post, Liza!

gg said...

Liza, your ability to make lemonade out of lemons, to encourage and inspire others is outstanding. I would read anything you write … blessings, gg

Jennifer Marshall said...

Love this post. I've too, found that often when I think I've been dealt life's greatest disappointments, they end up being the ultimate gifts in the long run. Congrats on being included in that text book! I'm not surprised. :)

Unknown said...

Liza, some day you will know exactly how pivotal you have been in my healing,how much hope you have given me over the last 2 yrs.Thank you.