1. The "Everything's Fine" Failure
Let's say you lose the job you've had for the past 20 years. In fact, let's say it wasn't even due to layoffs or the recession. It was your fault. You got overwhelmed, forgot about the quarterly numbers report and got canned. Of course, you don't want to tell your family or friends about it. It's embarrassing. So you sit at home cringing, only perking up when people call to see how you are. "Everything's fine!" you say. You may even repeat this line to yourself—until the credit card and mortgage payments are due. All of sudden, your original failure is not so tough to deal with when compared with the new slide-for-life failure you're now facing. Figuring your way out of this kind of compounded mess is rough, but at one point or another, however, we all have to go through it—otherwise, how we would we ever learn to utter that most revealing and intimate word? I'm talking about the one that binds us to other people via trust, need and honesty, the one also known in the dictionary as "help."
2. The Photo of Nicolas Cage Failure
Everyone who's ever had a computer has had a Nicolas Cage Failure. Your version may have gone like this: You forwarded the gossipy email to the exact friend who should have never, ever read it. Or: You sent out a group invite to a fundraiser without using a bcc, thus making 300 people's most private address public. Or: You were this woman, who sent that photo of Nicolas Cage to a potential boss instead of her résumé
. Whoops! Thankfully, this is the kind of mishap that only needs to happen once, because after that first awful flub, you will learn to revere the send button. By revere, I mean, you will consider the awesome power of that electronic tool before placing your cursor on top of it and hurtling your message into the world.
3. The Jumpsuit Failure
You got the date! With the sexy, funny guy five years younger! But the two of you made a lunch date, and you're not sure what to wear. You're worried, maybe, that if you dress the way you normally dress—sheath, hose, heels—you'll look too frumpy, too straitlaced. So you stop by a store thumping with music loud and forceful enough to dislodge your contact lens and ask the 15-year-old clerk for something cool and casual. She has just the thing!!!
Which is how you end up walking into the restaurant in an electric-pink jumpsuit with a thick gold zipper that goes from neck to belly button. Does this sound like it really happened? That's because it did, to a wonderful woman whose name will remain unmentioned. Sadly, the pain of watching the sexy, funny guy blink in horror, then put on his sunglasses so as not to be blinded by the fluorescent power of the jumpsuit (which had looked so hip and mod inside the store but, outside, so like a wearable traffic cone) can never be undone. But the takeaway also remains: Dressing has nothing to do with some mythic notion of your being hip or in the know. It has to do with you. Next time, you will throw on that classy, comfortable sheath and stride into the room and look the way you are—sexy, funny and a just a little bit wiser.
4. The Drumroll Failure
Do you remember all those years ago when Geraldo Rivera opened Al Capone's vault and found nothing there? Most of us don't put our life-defining moments on TV. But we may announce to everyone we know that we're up for a big promotion or that we're applying to grad school. We usually do this because we're nervous; telling people makes us feel like we're doing something about the situation, even if it's only talking. This technique can be helpful. All those listeners can calm us down. But it also means that all those listeners are going to check in with us, because we've set up an emotional drumroll that is rat-a-tat-tat-ing toward the grand finale, in which we go bust.
How much savvier, and safer, we feel when this same kind of situation comes to pass a few months or years later, when we know to discuss our concerns with just the few key people who can help us with something tangible, like advice or a support—influencing the outcome of our situation and not just our feelings about it.
5. The "It's All His Fault" Failure
The fiasco here comes in when—crappity crap—it turns out it's all your fault. Let's skip over the larger ethical point, which is that finger-pointing is beneath you. Finger-pointing is also dangerous. Thankfully, the one time you do it and it boomerangs back in your face inevitably wakes you up to the fact that you never, ever have to assign blame. You can ask the whole room, "What went wrong here?" The truth will come out—usually in a way that results in a solution to the problem.
6. The Bad Love Math Failure
When you're very, very close to people, you tend to feel what they feel. For example, if somebody makes a joke about your husband's big nose—which is big, but in a distinguished way that was handed down from his grandfather—you may want to also punch that person in their cute snub schnoz. But where your empathy can occasionally go wrong is when your husband's business fails or your teenager goes into rehab or your mom admits she's a shoplifter. All of a sudden, some confused calculations take over your brain, like: the failure of someone you love = the failure of you or your family or your life.
Doing this once—taking a deep dive into panic and depression—leaves you with an understanding that can change the course of your life: You did not steal a dress from Saks or take heroin. You're fine. And you need to keep on being fine in order to help those people you love get back to being fine with you.
7. The Freedom Failure
So you opened a hotdog stand on the beach the very day the tsunami struck, and you lost all your savings. So you married the love of your life, and he turned out to be a con man in charge of a pyramid scheme, and even the cops said there was no way you could have ever known. Sometimes in life we get knocked down by things we have no control over. This is awful...for a good long while.
But experiences like those do wise us up to the control we actually have, as opposed to the control we want. There are things we can plan for. But when it comes to weather, sickness, other people and even the arrival of the ice cream truck on a really hot day, we get no say. Though this lack of power can bedevil us, it can also free us, by allowing us to realize that some failures—just like successes—are flukes. These screwups aren't a reflection of us or our actions. And the more we understand this principle, the more quickly we tend to shelve those disappointing experiences and move on to ones that uplift us, ones that are all about who we are and who we want to be.
Next: 8 things you should never be embarrassed about