Let’s talk about failure

… and success, and how we measure and perceive these things.

Every so often I see updates in my LinkedIn feed from someone I met through work a few years back. He’s reinvented himself a few times. Since I’ve known of him, there was a job that didn’t work out, a couple of entrepreneurial ventures (at least one of which folded) and he’s now landed in another different industry. It’s the type of job people don’t do for love and I realised that every time I see a post from him, I feel a little sorry for him.

On the most recent of these occasions, I paused and asked myself if he would want pity. Somehow I doubt it. He’s providing for his family. And ultimately, what is more noble than that?

Often, we don’t write about failure until we have moved past it and gone on to achieve great things. It makes everyone feel good – the writer can comfortably pat herself on the back and the reader gets a warm fuzzy shot of inspiration. It’s much rarer to read about from right there in the trenches, as it’s happening.

So far, T has failed to get back into sales (the kind he wants to do) – at this stage, odds are it’s just not going to happen – and massively expanded the job search parameters. I have to wonder… how many people (including myself) who say they would do any job, even at minimum wage, would actually be able to pull it off and get hired at such a job? You may not consider yourself above a low level job, but you’re not the one who gets to make the hiring decision.

I haven’t talked to people at work about the struggle I’m feeling. The panic of falling further financially behind every day. The mix of embarrassment and resentment of the current state of things. I listen to the struggles they discuss – their partners’ demanding jobs and stress levels – but it’s tough for me to sympathise. I’d hazard a good guess they’re running on around $150k household incomes (maybe more in some cases), both settled in their careers, not worrying about living in shoddy rentals forever. I know everyone has their own problems, and at least we are fortunate to have our health and some awesome travels under our belt.

The best pep talk I’ve read lately comes courtesy of Seth Godin:

Make two lists.

One list highlights the lucky breaks, the advantages, the good feedback, your trusted network. It talks about the accident of being born in the right time and the right place, your health, your freedom. It features your education, your connection to the marketplace and just about every nice thing someone has said about you in the last week or month.

The other list is the flipside. It contains the obstacles you’ve got to deal with regularly, the defects in your family situation, the criticisms your work has received lately. It is a list of people who have better luck than you and moments you’ve been shafted and misunderstood.

The thing is, at every juncture, during every crisis, in every moment of doubt, you have a choice. You will pull out one (virtual) list or the other. You’ll read and reread it, and rely on it to decide how to proceed.

We recently had a death on his side of the family, quickly followed by a birth just a fortnight later. Both incidents really helped me get some perspective (though I must confess, they also induced a teensy bit of panic too on the finance side).

Sometimes, though, it really seems like everyone else has managed to ride a straight path to success and we’re still mired in the squiggly line.



16 thoughts on “Let’s talk about failure

  • Reply Tonya@Budget and the Beach October 23, 2014 at 08:15

    oh well girl I totally feel you and have been very open about my struggles on my site. I felt like I cruised for a very long time without much of those crazy lines, but since I was laid off life has been nothing but a roller coaster (but man am I thankful for my health!)! I sometimes wonder myself if everyone else has it easier, or maybe they just aren’t talking about any struggles as much as I am. I don’t know. It’s tough to think about sometimes.

  • Reply Revanche October 23, 2014 at 08:57

    There’s a reason “Hindsight is 20/20” rings so true. When we’re neck deep in the crap, it’s even harder to have faith that it’ll all be ok and faith is kind of all you have to hold on to because who the heck knows how this stuff will turn out?

    There have been so many times I wondered if I was doing the right thing and so many times looking back when I think, well, that could have gone better/worse. But how do we know that, even? We don’t.

    That squiggly line is exactly what it feels like I’ve been doing, myself, and it only looks like a straight line because I’ve had to straighten out the narrative to explain it.

    I will say that, after a certain point, I wasn’t able to get hired at retail jobs when I just wanted to add another PT job to make extra money, so the idea that you can just “get any job to pay the bills” hasn’t rung true for me. This is why I’ve had to double down on focusing on the career stuff but having all my eggs in one basket makes me nervy. FWIW.

  • Reply Ms. Mintly October 23, 2014 at 09:29

    You hit the nail on the head: feeling like everyone around you has it figured out but feeling like you’re mired in the squiggles! (I’ve always loved that image, too.) It might be true that some of the people around you do, indeed, have it all figured out (though I suspect that whatever they may have figured out in one area, they may have gaping deficiencies in others?)… you can at least count on people like me to be right there with you. Not that it makes it any easier, but at least you’re not alone….

  • Reply Erika October 23, 2014 at 10:49

    Man, I think it’s so hard when life doesn’t meet your expectations or timeline. But I’m learning that there’s always a lesson in it and USUALLY, there’s something EVEN better for you beyond that moment (which could be months or years, even) of struggle. But it can feel like failure. It always feels like failure until things turn around or we understand it. Then it’s like, “Oh, I see how that needed to happen!” I think I am finally starting to understand the people who are like, “Failure is just an OPPORTUNITY.” I used to roll my eyes and be really resentful and angry, but now I am starting to get that… not meeting our expectations may end up being a good thing in the long run…

    Anyway, I totally get your frustration and I hope things work themselves out for you guys soon!

  • Reply Taylor Lee October 23, 2014 at 11:43

    Oh god yes, this is so true. I think part of it, at least for me, is refusing to accept that I am feeling anything less than optimal at the time. Pretty much denial.

    Wish you the best in getting through this hard time.

  • Reply Manda | musicalpoem October 23, 2014 at 12:05

    Something similar, and definitely not the same, is the idea I’ve had recently with writing about my last relationship and the how and the why of it ending. If you recall, it was LDR, and it seems as though the blogosphere has a plethora of bloggers who are in relationships (some of them being LDR) and everything I read about it is mushy, gushy, ooh la la we are so in love. Which is great, and I’m sure I have posts in my archives along those lines. But that breakup was HARD. It sucked and I cried and I thought I was going to die. And where are those stories? I can’t have been the only blogger to have had a relationship fall apart like that, and yet… since breakups are technically a failure, there’s radio silence about it in the blogosphere. (The generic Thought Catalog-esque listicles “10 Ways to Get over a Breakup” don’t count.) The only reason why I haven’t tackled that topic on my blog is because it’s my ex’s story too, and I don’t know if it would be the best idea to share it on a public platform.


    I really hope things work out for you and T soon. I’ve been lucky for the most part that things have worked out for me, but I also haven’t had to tackle things like marriage and homebuying and babies etc etc. Here’s to not being mired in the squiggles for much longer.

    • Reply eemusings October 24, 2014 at 19:36

      Well, I feel like there must be a way for you to tackle this from your own perspective, without encroaching on his privacy. You were half of the relationship, and have a right to tell your story and share your feelings. It’s a hard line to balance, though. Maybe?

      • Reply Amanda October 26, 2014 at 21:09

        Esther, if you ever find a way of telling such a story without encroaching too much on the other person’s privacy, please do tell me. My LTR finally folded for good recently, and I’d love to outright say so, and why, and talk write about things publicly. But at the same time, since I don’t blog anonymously (and cannot be arsed doing so), I don’t want future colleagues, employers, randoms from uni, nosy acquaintances, etc. from knowing too much, you know? Ironic how we don’t mind “strangers” on the internet knowing private details about ourselves but not the immediate circle of people around us who aren’t friends.

        On the topic of failures though… seriously, what the heck is success. Some days, success is that I got out of bed and went to all my classes at all, other days it’s actually acing something or landing a job. It just varies so much. I can’t imagine what it’s like for you to have to hold your tongue as people in (objectively, on paper)a better “position” than you guys bitch about their situations.

        • Reply eemusings October 27, 2014 at 11:26

          1. Yes, yes it is ironic.

          2. All my sympathies.

          3. Morbidly, I was thinking exactly this the other day during a real low point. How would I write about it if we split? I guess I would try to tackle it from kind of a poetic angle, rather than confessional/narrative. Try to focus on what I’m feeling instead of what happened specifically. It would be as vague/opaque as I could get it. Obviously I don’t know if that would *actually* work – for me, let alone anybody else – but that was along the lines of what I was thinking. Definitely wouldn’t work if dissecting the relationship is what you really want to do.

  • Reply Michelle October 23, 2014 at 12:32

    Nothing has ever been “smooth” for me, in fact, life has always been a choppy , intense crazy ride. Now, I take the lessons that I’ve learned from all the crap and am able to manage the intensity of life a lot better. Basically, I know I can handle what gets thrown and me-and that’s HUGE.

  • Reply Genie October 23, 2014 at 12:51

    I feel incredibly blessed to work a job I enjoy and have side projects that I also love.

    You shouldn’t compare yourself to others. There’s no even playing field. No one has it all.

    I feel financial stable, though we realised earlier this year that we could survive on a $45k per year income. It’s good to know. It’s always a bit of a downer when people me talk to tell you their money troubles when they earn easily double what I earn. I just have to shut my mouth.

    I was talking to a client the other day who was saying how his house was only worth about $2 million but he was hoping to sell it for more because he wanted to retire soon. He told reckons for a person to retire, they need around $2 million. Maybe I should told him it would take me 45 years to make $2 million and that’s only if I didn’t spend a single penny in 45 years. Better start saving for my retirement!

  • Reply Genevieve October 23, 2014 at 13:55

    I am right in the midst of career craziness, but it is by choice. I probably do look like a failure from the outside.

    Good luck with T’s job search. I know that this has been super tough.

  • Reply Stephany October 24, 2014 at 10:07

    I can really relate to this. My life has been FULL of failures: flunking out of my teaching internship (that nobody actually flunks out of. I’m sure I was only of a small portion of people!), being fired from a job (in high school), and my, um, lack of romance. It’s such a part of my story and it’s hard when everyone else seems to be on an easy path with life. Like, everything just works out for them. I know I think this because I’m only seeing the bright & wonderful parts of their story, but I think we NEED to open up more about the messy and the struggles and the hard parts. Those are the stories that get to the heart of the matter.

  • Reply Newlyweds on a Budget October 24, 2014 at 10:31

    I wouldn’t call it failure, I would call it your marathon. Failing is admitting you’ve given up. And he WILL find a job one way or another since he is looking, so there is no failing going on here.
    There were times when Eric was working his min wage job that I resented it so much and it just SUCKED hard core. I love having money in the bank, it makes me feel secure. but I just kept hoping that eventually it would work out because I knew I had married a hard worker. And eventually, it works out. It just sucks when you’re in the trenches.. if this is as worse as it’s going to be, it can only get better, right?

  • Reply save. spend. splurge. October 25, 2014 at 02:24

    Success hasn’t come easy to me either but it’s hard to say because I do feel lucky in many ways. All I know is that I’ve stumbled onto great opportunities, seized them and that’s that. No sense in dwelling on what I did wrong (plenty there).

    Great post.

  • Reply Myles Money October 29, 2014 at 23:47

    Failure shouldn’t be a taboo, it should be rewarded to encourage people to keep trying. Failure is part of the learning process and should be embraced.

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