The F Word: How Failure Can Lead to Success
When they fired me, I was grateful right from the start—they did me such a favor. Because I didn't have the courage to quit. You know, people often think you quit because you lack the courage to persevere. I think you often don't quit because you lack the courage to get the hell out when you should. You don't want to think of yourself as a failure that quickly. You want to think, 'Well, I was really lousy, but then I got good.' Of course, the "then I got good" stuff wasn't happening.
So I was glad they fired me. And I felt great. I felt like somebody had liberated me from a prison. The prison wasn't the school, per se. It was being in a job that I was ill-equipped to do. After I was fired, I fell back on my typing. I was very fast—millions of errors, but really fast. So I got a job working for temporary agencies. After a few weeks, I thought, Okay, what the hell am I going to do? I knew I needed a profession. I wanted to fall in love with work. I wanted to fall in love with something. So what is it?
I had this vague idea I'd like to get into media, but I didn't know how to get started. I just stumbled into public radio because I had time and because I was looking. Had I still been teaching, I never, ever would have found it. It's possible I would have become an adequate teacher, but I don't think I would have fallen in love with it the way I did with radio. I loved it the moment I started doing it.
I think we're shaped by failure at least as much as we're shaped by our successes. When I have guests on a show, I like to talk to them about their failures—not to show them up, but because that's part of what defines us. Sometimes it's not the cheery, upbeat lessons that really explain how a person got to be where they are. It's the things they failed at, the things they tried to do and couldn't do. The things they're still struggling to do. And even the artistic style, if you're an artist, is often based on struggling to sound like your influences and failing, and through that effort finding your own voice.
We're taught to be afraid of failure. But it's really not the worst thing if you're resilient enough to get up and keep going. Sometimes when you fail, it's for a good reason. You're doing the wrong thing. And sometimes, as in my case, the failure is doing you a favor.''
Subject #2: Lisa Rau
Who She Is: Judge Lisa Rau lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two sons. In 2001 Rau, 41, won a citywide election to become a judge. She'd had a dream of combining justice with public service for decades. But the win, as she recounts below, was preceded by a first try two years earlier that resulted in a very public loss.
What She Told Us: "One of the things that's great about failure is, it's never as bad as you think it's going to be. You think it's going to be the end of the world, and it's really not."
Her Failure Story: "The day of the first election, I got a call from a reporter who said, "The word on the street is that you are going to be one of the unendorsed candidates who will win. And I want to know where you're going to be when you get the results so I can talk to you." So I'm feeling really good. And then I lost. It wasn't like I got slaughtered. But almost winning doesn't get you to be almost a judge. You throw in everything you have and these volunteers around you have thrown all this into a campaign. And then you lose and you have nothing. Or at least that's what it felt like.
My oldest son, who was 7, saw me cry and the next day he said to me, "I've never seen you cry before. I guess you really wanted it." Seeing me cry made such an impact on him. It really sank in.
I promised my family that if I didn't win this second time, I would never run again because it was just too hard on them. My son went with me to the polls the day of the election, and when we got in the car afterward, there's this silence. And he goes, "Mom, you know what? Even if you don't win this time, you can still run again. And you can keep running again until you win, because I know you really want it."
It must have taken so much for him to say that. I had been gone every night for months. But he wanted me to get what I wanted. I thought that was so strong for a little boy.
One of the biggest things I learned from running was that it really takes a whole team. I guess it takes a whole team for a lot of things you want in life. But we're afraid to ask people to help us. So the second time around I was braver about asking. I asked everyone.
We also don't talk about failure enough, and that's part of why everyone is so scared by it. One of the things that's great about failure is, it's never as bad as you think it's going to be. You think it's going to be the end of the world, and it's really not. The people who loved you still love you. You find out who your real friends are: the people who call the next day or who treat you just the same way. And you realize that your best relationships are not about whether you win. They're about you—all of you, even the part that loses. That makes you feel stronger and invincible, because you realize you can fail and survive. It's not as critical for you to win. But it also makes you able to try again, because you know that if you lose you don't die. I would have been happy winning the first time. But wow, you really, really appreciate it after having lived with losing.''
Next: Artists Lily Yeh and Carol Venezia reflect on their flops, failures, and surprising successes