On (Epic) Failure

One of the many reasons I started this project is to put my failures on blast so I can get more comfortable with the idea and the reality of failing, learn to fail better, and embrace every epic failure as a milestone on the way to every monumental success. And also, to laugh at and learn from myself. (Mostly laugh at, let’s be real.) But so far, for the most part, I’ve just avoided the topic of failure altogether, put on a smile, and powered through life and through this project. Because this is what I do, and in a lot of ways, all I know how to do.

Here’s the thing, and I’ve never really expressed or maybe even realized it before right now:

When you lose a parent suddenly or long before those things are “supposed” to happen, you have to put on a smile and power through life. Your only other choice is to fall apart, completely and entirely. There is no in-between.

As much as people (guidance counselors, teachers, coaches, friends, parents of friends, aunts, uncles, cousins, fellow runners at the local gym who watched your dad train for 3 marathons, your dad’s doctors who told you every day to not give up hope until the day when there was no hope, & the guy at your dad’s favorite taco place who used to laugh at his earnest attempts to stumble through Spanish as a show of cultural solidarity when ordering his tacos with car-nay ah-sah-dah, because everyone, I mean everyone loved your dad)…As much as they won’t say it or don’t even know they’re feeling it (and in fact, they often express the exact opposite of what they don’t know they’re feeling and tell you that it’s ok to break down, secretly hoping to be the 1 to crack you and put you back together)…Well they all want you to power through life with a smile too, maybe even more than you do. Because if you didn’t do that, then they would know it was real, and you would be a living, breathing reminder of mortality.

For the past 15 years, the world has demanded normalcy of me. When people ask what my dad does for a living – which comes up way more often in adult conversation than you would think, by the way – I make them feel awkward when I tell the truth, so sometimes I just lie, which as the worst liar in the world causes problems either way. At weddings during the father-daughter dance, anyone who catches my eye and knows my situation immediately looks away, so I usually find a way to be nowhere near the dance-floor.  People put celebrations on pause and send me messages that read simply “love you” and “just wanted you to know I’m thinking of you” on Father’s Day while everyone else is BBQing, golfing, and doing all the things dads do. I bring conversations to a standstill and force uncomfortable transitions in otherwise cheery banter. Since middle school, I’ve been a constant reminder of how a whole family could shatter in an instant, how such real dreams of such a loveable guy could be dashed before he even had a chance to have a mid-life crisis, and the hardest part of all for people to be confronted with – how it could have happened to any 1 of us and realistically still could. And no one, I mean no one,  wants to think about that every day. Myself included.

So, there’s that. And now 15 years later, though much better adjusted (obviously) and with ever-expanding, enlightened perspective on life, I still feel the need for normalcy, probably more intensely than most people. And when you think about it, this really does make sense. Knowing where I’m coming from has helped me realize why I find myself where I am now, which is sometimes paralyzed by the potential for failure or disappointment and not knowing how to move forward from that place.

My failures are not something I like to share with the world, but I hope that in doing so, I can both laugh at and learn from myself, so I can move on.  Here are my top 2 failures so far this year:

  • Ignoring my Instincts: Humans are hardwired with internal alarm bells, the problem is, we tune our own alarms out so we don’t melt down. Other people can detect our alarms going off long before we can and will try to offer insight or suggest directions for our lives, but no one likes to be told what to do by anyone else. This is especially true of toxic relationships, but until we become aware of our own alarms, nothing can change.  I tuned my alarms out for a (really) long time. I knew something in my life wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t figure out exactly what it was. All I knew was, I was defective, and probably defective beyond repair. I had somehow developed serious “trust issues” that I never even knew I was capable of having, and had doubts/concerns/anxiety about my relationship that I tried to talk through with the only other person in it, but was often made to feel as if I was overreacting, imagining circumstances that didn’t actually exist, or as he called it, “flaring up.” What I came to realize, by some internal magic that I will never be able to fully explain, is that I knew the truth all along without ever having to ask or look for evidence. I just didn’t want to admit it to myself or to anyone else, because admitting a failed relationship meant admitting I was wrong about someone I put all my trust and 4 years of my life into. What I know now is that I wasn’t and will never be defective. (Imperfect, yes, but not defective.) There can’t be trust in a relationship with someone who isn’t trustworthy, and you can’t work toward the right future with someone who is wrong for you. The alarms will always go off, and when they do, I will listen from now on.
  • Taking on Too Much at Once: This is a classic failure, one I have repeated throughout my life but have yet to fully learn from. This 30 Before 30 list was supposed to be a way for me to focus on a goal at a time, over the course of a year. Among the original goals was:  “Get a waitressing job 1-2 days a week.” I thought it would help me pay down debt faster, get me out of the house while making money instead of spending money, and make new friends with co-workers and customers, etc. I actually crossed this goal off, but then had to quit after realizing I had taken on too much and that the value of the goal wasn’t worth what it would cost me in my life: free-time, energy, and self-respect lost dealing with appallingly bad management. After spending an especially long shift in especially un-supportive shoes, I woke up the next morning with a stress fracture – which kept me off my foot and sent shooting pains up my leg for a full week. After seeing a specialist, I found out I’ve probably had the injury for quite a while, but “overdoing it” (direct quote) is what really did me in. So, there’s actual, documented proof of this failure. I’m now limited to how much time I can spend on my feet and what shoes I can wear to prevent any further damage, thus rendering another goal: “Become a runner & go at least 3 days a week” impossible for the time being. What this taught me is that I need to reprioritize, slow down, and be adaptable. My list can adjust as my life changes, and it should. Instead of trying to relive past experiences that I once found animating or energizing – like waitressing or running – I may need to expand my horizons and find other hobbies, activities, projects, and challenges that fit who I am at this stage of my life and who I want to be going forward. And I need to give myself the time and space to do this one goal at a time.

This wouldn’t be an authentic reflection by me if it didn’t have a bright side. So here it is: I really am learning. Like, really.  I can feel it happening and am an active participant in my own life again, not just passively waiting for things to change. I can feel this project at work in my life and am a better person for giving myself this time and space to try, fail, learn, grow, start over, and try again. As long as I keep doing that, I’m closer to someday than I sometimes realize.

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