Every year, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation holds a Fail Fest, where they celebrate a valuable lesson they learned while investing money into a loser organization that has absolutely bombed. According to this brilliant team, failure is chock-full of wisdom — one of the most effective way to absorb key insights — so it’s best to sit down with that uncomfortable feeling for awhile and explore what went wrong.
I have always loved stories of failure — much more than tales of success. Nothing has ever come easily to me.
I am not the typical writer who sailed through English 101 and devoured The Great Gatsby as a teen. My eighth-grade English teacher did wonders for my self-confidence when she read aloud my paper to the class as an example of how not to write. My decoding skills were so horrific (as tested and reported by a psychologist that my mom sent me to when I was 17) that I relied on Cliffs Notes to get through high school English. My SATs were so low that I would change the subject every time that topic came up for, oh, 20 years.
And there was what I call my “American Idol” moment, when I asked a professor in grad school to write a letter of recommendation for me. I was applying for a job as an assistant editor of a magazine. This man, much like a cocky judge, took me outside in the hall to drop the bomb.
“I’m sorry,” he said, squinting his small brown eyes that shot daggers through my heart. “I can’t do that. It’s just that you … you don’t use words correctly.”
Had I been on a televised set, I may have responded like some weepy contestants. “No way. Please no, please!”
But I’m in pretty good company, actually. Albert Einstein failed his college entrance exam. Walt Disney was fired from his first media job. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity basketball team. Dr. Seuss was rejected 43 times before his first story was published.
I especially like Oprah’s story. She began her career about 40 miles from my home as an anchorwoman for the Baltimore news. She was demoted because she became too emotional when interviewing people. She would cry on camera. So the station gave Oprah her own talk show. To get rid of her. And she did pretty well with it! Failure is really not so bad.
“We would never learn to be brave and patient if there were only joy in the world,” wrote Helen Keller.
All of the heroes in my life who have succeeded — in their professions or in their mental health journeys — have all lived through horrific failures and have anguished along the way to the medal platform. I sat on the sidelines watching them squirm in order to win resiliency and fortitude. I studied them, hoping to spot an easier, softer route to success.
“I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” said Thomas Edison.
My name is in print today not because of any talent, but because I, like Edison, also found 10,000 ways that weren’t working and I didn’t give up. When I read the first 50 rejection letters, I noticed they were all signed by an acquisitions editor, the person responsible for throwing a manuscript into the slush pile, which I call the flush pile, or placing it on the desk of a managing editor with contact information of the lucky author. So, theoretically, if I were to become an acquisitions editor that meant I could vote yes on my own books. Which is exactly what I did. And I published six children’s books the next year from Paulist Press.
I’ve adapted that kind of analytical thinking to my mental health journey. So when the first 50 medication combinations failed to bring me relief, I decided to turn the car around and try a holistic route. After spending $7,500 on every test imaginable that was supposed to find the “root cause” of my death thoughts, I made yet another U-turn and set up a community for people who were treatment-resistant like me. That seemed to work: turning my pain into service.
But I wouldn’t have arrived there, at my community, if the first medication worked.
I wouldn’t have had the guts or the idea to apply for a job as an acquisitions editor without the first 50 rejection letters.
When the Japanese mend broken objects, they fill in the cracks with gold. They believe that when something is damaged, it becomes more beautiful.
I believe the same is true with failure. With each tumble, a person becomes more human and his story more intriguing. Instant success? I find it boring. Rather, I am captivated by the kind of loss — pain, blood, sweat — that has the power to sculpt something extraordinary from a conventional mold. I stand still to listen to those stories. Because they convince me to keep going, even as I want to give up.
Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.
Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.