This is not a fairy tale.
I can remember being truly lost, stuck in that quarter life crisis, having graduated from a prestigious university with a made-up degree (I designed my own major in Asian American studies and documentary studies) and no idea what to do next. I sat at a little computer desk whittling away the hours by being alone in my own space, thinking and reflecting, looking for inspiration. I wanted some way of knowing what I should do with my life, but I didn’t know where to look.
I had spent the previous summer in California, so I had the notion that I wanted to move to California. But I had no way of getting there. I was applying to Asian American related things, documentary related things, judging them based on what I thought my chances were for getting the job rather than on any notion of whether that was what I wanted to do.
Somehow I landed on Oakland Teaching Fellows as my way of moving to the Bay Area. My friend Rebecca was already out here in Oakland doing Teach for America. Her caveats about the difficulties of teaching in Oakland somehow didn’t really faze me. Plus, she had a rocky start but had finished off the year more than successfully. When I flew out for an interview, she helped coach me a bit. On paper, I was a great candidate. Even I thought I was a shoo-in.
Sure enough, a month later, I was living here.
Of course, I really, truly had no idea what I was getting myself into. Like the interview process, summer training was deceptively easy. It belied the disaster that was about to unfold. As Rebecca had told me months before, knowing that you’re going to be miserable doesn’t help the fact that you’re going to be miserable.
To say I was “teaching” eighth grade algebra was certainly overstating it. I had the principal in my classroom on more than one desperate occasion– and even then, I was mostly ineffective at getting any teaching done. The first day of school, before anything even began, two of my kids were suspended for bringing alcohol to school– twelve year olds. The days when my students came right after art class, there would be clay flying across the room. I had no idea how to get students to listen when I talked. The floors of my classroom were filthy all the time. I commanded no respect, and it showed.
I walked around like a zombie all day. And when I went home, I still had lesson plans for the next day hanging over my head. I remember lying on the floor, curled in a ball, with no idea what to do. I was completely unable to grasp what “normal” was, I was so far below it. When I tell people now that I once was a teacher in East Oakland, it’s so easy to romanticize the tough urban school experience– we’ve all seen Dangerous Minds. But there was nothing romantic about this at all. I was not helping anyone, least of all, myself.
Up until this point in my life, I had been strongly motivated by a fear of failure, but I had never experienced such complete failure firsthand. At the end of the year, I was battered, defeated, and unemployed. Perhaps my one saving realization was that I had failed at something I never really wanted to do in the first place– but that’s not to say I hadn’t been trying.
Still, it took me another year of working in education before I really left it behind. In my second year, even a tiny $11,000 AmeriCorps stipend for running an after school program still felt safer to me than leaping into something else in an uncertain economy. But as that school year came and went, I realized I didn’t need it any more. The measly stipend actually helped in this regard; how difficult could it be to make that money without having to work in a school full time? In the end, I fell into photography full time rather than leaping into it, but the end result was still there– I ended up in something I loved.
The thing that I wish I knew about failure is that it is not simply the thing you have to overcome on your way to success. It’s not always “try, try again” or “learn from your mistakes.” Instead, failure is often the deep, dark staging area from which you have to build your success. After I had met my rock bottom– lying balled up on the floor at home or sitting in the principal’s office, sloppy tears rolling down my face– I had no more excuses, nothing left to fear. I had to take a hold of my life or risk a lifetime of rolling around in my own misery. I was lucky enough to emerge from the situation doing something I love and living the lifestyle I had always dreamed of. I honestly don’t know that I would do it the same way if I had a choice, but if it weren’t for my failure, I would not have ended up in this beautiful life that I have now. It’s encouraging, even in times of uncertainty, to know that I can make that sort of a recovery.
By now, I am sure that you have all seen Steve Jobs’ 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University. I’ve been meaning to write this reflection on failure for over a year now, but re-watching his speech yesterday spurred me to finally do it. In fact, his is one of my three favorite graduation speeches that address failure as a central theme. These are the words that I wish I’d heard at my own graduation, but even belated, they are an inspiration.
Steve Jobs, Stanford, 2005: Commencement address.
I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything.
Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.
J.K. Rowling, Harvard, 2008: The Fringe Benefits of Failure & The Importance of Imagination
Now, I am not going to stand here and tell you that failure is fun. That period of my life was a dark one, and I had no idea that there was going to be what the press has since represented as a kind of fairy tale resolution. I had no idea then how far the tunnel extended, and for a long time, any light at the end of it was a hope rather than a reality.
Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
So given a Time Turner, I would tell my 21-year-old self that personal happiness lies in knowing that life is not a check-list of acquisition or achievement. Your qualifications, your CV, are not your life, though you will meet many people of my age and older who confuse the two. Life is difficult, and complicated, and beyond anyone’s total control, and the humility to know that will enable you to survive its vicissitudes.
Revd. Dr. Sam Wells, Duke Baccalaureate, 2009: The Word We Don’t Mention
“Of course we have sophisticated strategies for calling failure something else. We call it broadening our experience. We call it a learning curve. We call it a blind alley. We mutter things like “If it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger.”
“Another approach is to adjust our sights and aim so low that we can’t fail. When a person appears to be lazy it’s often a mask for a fear of failure. Being lazy means you can go on saying “Just you watch me when I go” – in other words, if I really did try, I really would succeed. The Irish humorist Oscar Wilde said “There’s only one thing worse than not getting what you want – and that’s getting it.” Even when we do achieve our ambition, we then have to face the rest of our days, and realize how small our life projects really are. Failure protects us in some ways, because we can remain obsessed by our unfulfilled goal. We only notice its insignificance if and when we attain it.”
“The terrifying truth is, we all fail in the end. Life begins the moment you fail, and the moment you admit you’ve failed. Until then you’re living in a fantasy bubble and if no one’s yet burst it for you it’s less likely to be because they think you’re immortal and more likely because they’re not optimistic you could cope with living outside it. Of all the moments of insight and self-knowledge in my own life, one of the most significant I think was at the age of about 7 when I realized I wasn’t going to be a professional soccer player. The rest of my friends took another 5 years or so to make the same discovery. I’ve always felt that that gave me a head start because I spent 5 early years not living in the fantasy land that surrounded my friends.”