Fail, Fail Again

I think a lot about the collective societal definitions of success, excellence and failure. We typically attach certain milestones and achievements around success, and excellence, and then center our idea of failure around not meeting those expectations, but what if all of that is simply not true? What if not having a 4.0 GPA, getting a high score on standardized tests, completing traditional degrees, getting married, having children, making a certain salary, weren’t true markers of success and excellence?

Something I feel very strongly about is that failure, as it relates to the definition of lack of success, especially when defining success around more traditional achievements, does not actually exist. At least, it doesn’t exist in the way we have been conditioned to believe. I would never say milestones and achievements aren’t important, or have no value, but I think it’s important that we take care to ensure we maintain a healthy sense of self-worth outside of those achievements. A person’s worth is not determined by anything other than their existence.

What if we stopped gauging our own self worth and success around our weight, or body type? What if we stopped deciding we had value based on our relationship status, or job title, or our desire or ability to have children?

I talk a lot about the various “failures,” I have experienced in my life, because I truly believe it’s important. Failure is not fatal, and in reality, failure, like success, is a personal definition. I mentioned my own personal failures in my Back in the Saddle post, and in my Take A Flying Leap post, and even in my Making The Grade post, but I think it’s time to be more specific.

I went to an All Girls’ Catholic College Prep school for middle school and high school. It was academically challenging for me, because I was not a particularly good student. It can be difficult when you are surrounded by high achievers to be someone who, oftentimes, has a best effort that is average or even below average. By the time I graduated, I was burned out on school. In addition to the rigorous curriculum, I lived about 40 miles away from campus, and was the only student community from my neighborhood. Being that far away had been difficult socially the six years I spent between middle school and high school. I applied to several colleges, and was accepted at most I applied to, but honestly didn’t put a lot of thought into making a choice about where to attend after high school. 

I accepted at Cal State Northridge even though I hadn’t been on the campus once, because it was close enough to home that I could live on campus but go home on weekends, they had a theater program, and my dance teacher offered classes very close to campus. That was literally the extent of brainpower I spent on making a choice. When I arrived on campus in the summer to take the English and Math placements test I realized I had made a huge mistake. Going from a school of around six hundred students to a university of thousands was terrifying, and I immediately knew I shouldn’t attend CSUN. I returned from the exams distraught (see intended theater major) and told my parents I had ruined my life, etc. etc. My parents were surprisingly supportive and my dad gave me some of the best advice I have ever received. 

There is no expiration date on your education, and education is more than what happens in a classroom. Colleges aren’t going anywhere, and just because this school isn’t the right fit doesn’t mean taking time to do coursework at a community college, or taking a bit of a break before going back to school isn’t fatal, nor was it a failure. 

All of this also happened to coincide with my dad accepting a job in San Francisco. So, I was able to move with my parents and take some time to focus on my dance, take classes that interested me at City College, and do a bit of an educational reset. Obviously, there’s a huge amount of privilege there. I was able to live at home for free, and have my parents continue to support me as long as I was either in school and/or working. I realize not everyone can approach post-high school education and experience in this way, but I think the overall message is important. College isn’t for everyone, and isn’t for everyone right out of high school. 

I did take courses at City College and College of San Mateo. I never fulfilled all of my transfer requirements which a lot of my peers thought was a failure on my part, and made me flakey and lazy. The truth was, I wanted to be able to study things I found interesting, and I wasn’t in a huge rush to transfer to a four-year college without having a better grasp on what I wanted my major to be. So, I considered applying to vocal performance programs at University of Oregon and Cal State Long Beach, and was approached by Cal State Los Angeles to apply to their vocal performance programs. I enrolled in and dropped out of Academy of Art University as a graphic design major, and I am a Beauty School Dropout. 

I completed a makeup artist program at Makeup Designory, and worked as a makeup artist for about a year without making any money, before realizing that I am not really cut out for the freelance, hustle lifestyle. Additionally, it was clear to me that while I enjoyed makeup work, I wasn’t willing to go back to retail work in order to make it work, and that I lacked the desire to struggle for years in order to gain entry into the unions for studio work. All of this was absolutely deemed by myself, and a lot of my friends as yet another thing I had failed at. I had several friends who basically told me I was being immature, and selfish. That I couldn’t expect to “like” school or work, and that I just needed to suck it up and finish something. 

Here’s the thing: I absolutely knew, and understood that hard work would be required, and that not all of it would be fun. However, I am also a firm believer in the idea that if I am going to work hard, and have challenges, I need to see the end value in that work. Hard work and being unhappy just for the sake of hard work is unproductive and not worth the difficulty to me. I was willing to make sacrifices and knew there would be classes or jobs I didn’t really love as long as I knew it would ultimately help me reach my end goal. If I didn’t see how that would work, I would move on to try something else even if it meant I hadn’t finished a program. 

Again, I cannot emphasize enough that most people in my life felt that this was wrong, that I was wasting time and that not following a more traditional path meant I was flighty, lazy, immature. Everytime I left another path “unfinished” was viewed as a failure. The reality is, even when I didn’t finish a program, I was able to go forward to something else with new skills, and or a new understanding of what I did want, because I now also knew one more thing I didn’t want. Yes, it took a lot of trial and error, but ultimately, the skills and knowledge I gained through all of these failures has helped me every day, and with every single job I have ever had. 

All of these failures helped to continue to hone my “gut.” I am very good at knowing if a situation, a job, a project, are going to be the right fit for me because I’ve tried and failed at so many things in the past. I no longer waste much time on things that won’t serve me, or make me better, things that won’t help me continue to move forward along my path. It gets easier and easier to say no to what won’t fulfill you, what won’t add value to your life or skills. 

Ultimately I eventually went back to school to finish my undergraduate degree in Social Work. It took me about ten years to finish all the coursework in part because I was in a Weekend/Evening format program and was working full time. This, paired with what I qualified for in student loans  meant it was nearly impossible for me to be enrolled in 12 units each semester. I also had times when life just got too hectic to take on any coursework at all, and I had times when my workplace did not support my being a student and I couldn’t afford to jeopardize my employment. 

Did my lack of a degree keep me from opportunities? Yes, it absolutely did. Was it hard to not be on the same or a more similar traditional path as a lot of my peers? Also, yes. There were many times when I worried I had truly ruined my life, that I would never be able to be “successful,” because my choices had taken me from that traditional, linear path from high school, to college, to workforce. However, the truth is, life is not linear, no matter what we wish we could believe. An example I often share is that when I started my Bachelor of Science in Social Work program back in 2008, I had decided that I would complete my degree, go on to get my Masters in Social Work, become a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and get a job as a counselor on an elementary school campus. It became clear very early in 2009 following the recession when the Los Angeles Unified School District cut school counselor positions (along with school nurses and librarians) that this path may not actually be open to me at the end of my imaginary six or so year timeline. I was disappointed, but also thought to myself, well it’s still going to take me close to four years to complete my undergrad coursework anyway, I can always reevaluate after that. In truth, the undergraduate work took close to ten years, and by that time I had discovered the work I actually really enjoyed and felt called to do was in nonprofit fundraising. This work doesn’t require an MSW and certainly doesn’t require being an LCSW, so it was easy to let go of the idea of needing to complete graduate level coursework right away. It also reminded me regularly that life often doesn’t follow our own plans or timelines. 

I could have continued on the path I had set for myself in 2008, but even doing that would mean my plans would look very different. I don’t know that I would have been able to finish my program any more quickly (due mostly to some additional personal life things that came up,) and looking at the student loan debt I sit on from undergrad, taking on more for a program that doesn’t really guarantee work that would pay well enough to pay it all back isn’t super appealing. Following a plan just for the sake of not “failing” is not actually avoiding failure as far as I am concerned. Failure is unavoidable – at some point usually many times in your life, you will fail at something. The important thing is what you do with that failure. Do you brush yourself off, assess the new skills and knowledge you’ve gained from the experience and use that to try again at something else? If so, I don’t view that as a true failure. In order to share advice in a similar vein as my dad’s advice 20 years ago, as long as you are learning, and moving in forward motion, you are never truly failing, and a lot of what we view as failure anyway, is not as serious, and certainly not fatal. To borrow from Henri Nouwen, “There is a great difference between successfulness and fruitfulness.” If we focus less on only success, and more on success + fruitfulness, I think we’d all be a lot better off in terms of our mental health. 

Go forth, aim for fruitfulness in your lives, try and fail at many things, and worry less about being successful.

Take A Flying Leap

When I was a kid, my favorite cousin, E, was impossibly cool and chic, and I wanted to be everything she was. My cousin, about three years older than me, felt like the older sister I would never have even though for most of our lives we lived on different coasts. E was born and raised in Manhattan, collected Absolut Vodka ads, had a job at The Gap, and rode horses. E knew how to navigate the city, and public transportation while my mom drove me to school every day, or I shared a carpool with kids that were varying levels of bullies to me. Manhattan was full of shops and restaurants and artists and fancy things, and Santa Clarita was an endless stream of sameness and banality. Sometimes, I felt robbed of the life I should have had if we hadn’t left New York. Why was the universe so cruel to take me from New York and plop me into suburbia instead? Looking back, I can’t really complain too much about being a kid in Santa Clarita if I’m being honest. I lived in a house with my parents, we knew our neighbors, it was safe enough to ride bikes and play outside mostly unsupervised until dark, and the quality of the schools was decent. As I got older, things got more complicated as they tend to do, and I have a complicated relationship to my hometown, which I think a lot of people experience. All that aside, every so often, a package would arrive at our home in Santa Clarita, with hand-me-downs from E, and I would lose my ever loving mind over how hip everything was. I think my desire to begin horseback riding lessons stemmed from a pair of jodhpurs Ellen had outgrown and included in the box of clothing sent to me. My previous experience with horses had been a terrified, white knuckled, eyes squeezed shut ride around a ring on a particularly docile horse during a Girl Scout field trip. I’m fairly certain I cried. I was a highly risk-averse child, which really should have made my later in life diagnosis of anxiety more understandable.

That pair of jodhpurs though too large and baggy on my tiny frame, gave me visions of National Velvet. I too would be a horsewoman. I too would one day be cool enough to have a job at a retail chain store. I too would be as effortlessly self assured, independent, and cool as Ellen meticulously saving and posting the Absolut ads around her room like wallpaper. All I had to do was take the first step toward becoming my cousin by learning how to ride horses. I poured over the local Parks and Recreation catalogue which was delivered quarterly, and brought the page with beginner horseback riding lessons to my mother and pleaded with her to sign me up. I probably didn’t have to go so hard, to be honest. I didn’t have any other extra curricular activities at this point (having dramatically suffered through a tap/jazz/ballet series where I wanted to quit immediately after procuring the costumes for our recital) and I’m sure my mom wanted me out of the house doing something even remotely productive with my life. So, off we went to Don–E-Brook Farms (now the Santa Clarita Valley Equestrian Center), which was located off a road that dead ended into a mountain and now goes all the way through the valley to the freeway (progress?) Back in the late 80s, early 90s, this was in the “horsey” part of town which only about a fifteen minute drive from home felt like it was in another country.

Liz, the owner, and her daughters ran all of the lessons, and they were kind, and patient and I’m sure could tell that my little seven or eight year old stubbornness was warring with my fear of being on an animal as large as a horse. So many possibilities for danger and near certain death! Turns out, I actually had some natural ability. I had a good seat, and strong posture, and progressed well through the beginner and intermediate lessons. I ended up riding for about two the three years, getting a used saddle for Christmas one year, and leveling up to jumping over small fences. I only ever participated in one, maybe two shows, but I was well on my way to being that horsewoman I saw myself as when I first put on those jodhpurs. I took a leap, and tried something scary so I could attempt to reach my goal. It paid off, and I proved to myself I was braver than I realized.

I had been riding for a couple years when I started Irish Step Dancing. Irish dance was something I initially fought my mother on – no, thank you, I had already suffered through dance classes before. I did not like them, I wasn’t good at them, and the fabulous costumes were not quite enticement enough to make me even consider going back to any form of dance, let alone one that I’d never even heard of. Riverdance was still two years or so away from bursting onto the international scene and introducing people around the world to Irish dancing. My mom struck a deal, I only had to attend one class, and if I hated it, I never had to return. Well, I loved it – and within a year I was going to have to make a choice: riding or Irish dance. I couldn’t go to both classes, and both horse shows and dance competitions took place on weekends, so my parents said “pick one, and let the other go.” It was a difficult decision, because I loved both. I had certainly invested more time into riding, and if I quit I would never become a clone of my cousin. Ultimately, a riding lesson made the decision for me. I was in a jumping class, and was going through a course, when my horse refused a jump. I was lucky, I didn’t even come off the horse (and was lucky, I had never come off a horse), but in that moment my life flashed before me (sort of) and I realized the likelihood of breaking my neck Irish dancing was significantly lower than horseback riding. I took another leap, and made a choice. I ended up choosing Irish dance, and spent the better part of 20 years dancing.

In my last post I talked about goals and how they can help keep you motivated. Irish dancing became my entire life, and a huge part of my self identity. I spent hours every week in class or practicing, weekends competing, and years traveling and making friends. I started dance, and specifically Irish dance pretty late comparatively. I was ten when I had my first lesson, and at the time, the pretty small community in the Western Region typically saw students begin dancing in preschool or kindergarten. The Irish dance world has exploded and become significantly more diverse, more glamorous, more expensive, and more competitive since I had my first class back in 1992. When I first started dancing, my only goal was to learn all my basic dances, and progress into hard shoes (the ones with the fiberglass tips and heels that make the fun noise.) I was deemed ready to enter competitions about a year after I started dancing (typical at the time,) and the little group of us who made up the first class in Santa Clarita, was informed just before our first competition that our teacher, Bella, did not want to see any tears. We were to have fun, do our best, make friends, and if we won something that’s great, if not, better luck next time. I am forever grateful to this mindset because there were and still are schools and teachers who value winning above all else. Irish dance was an extracurricular, and as far as Bella and my parents were concerned, it should be fun. If it wasn’t fun, what was the point?

Once I had been dancing long enough to understand the competition structure, my goals grew, and eventually my main goal was qualifying to dance at the World Championships. The Olympics equivalent for the Irish dance community. It took me ten years to reach that goal, and as I grew older and gained maturity I better understood what would be required of me to meet that goal. Just after I graduated from high school, we moved to San Francisco and I transfered dance schools. Due to the geography of San Francisco and the surrounding area, I went from only being able to attend one maybe two classes per week in LA, to three to four days a week in the Bay Area. I enrolled in ballet, pointe, tap, and jazz classes at City College, and started taking pilates reformer classes several times a week. In 2000, at regionals, just a few months after we had moved, I placed 10th in my age group for the second year in a row, and was disappointed. The following year, after additional days of dancing per week and the pilates, I placed 4th, qualifying for The World Championships. I had finally done it, I had qualified to dance at Worlds.

Now what? After qualifying, there was some drama – I got injured, there was some disappointment on my part with how my dance school was operating, I transferred schools which was still quite taboo at the time, and had to accept a six-month competition suspension. None of those things are ultimately that important now that I look back, but they each felt like overwhelming and sometimes insurmountable obstacles at the time.

My goals around competitive dancing never went as far as winning, or even placing at the Worlds – I was pretty pragmatic when it came to assessing my talent. My hope was to continue to place in the top 4, if not the top 2 or 3 in my age group regionally, to eventually place Nationally, and to go on to sit and pass the TCRG exam, a five part exam to become a credentialed Irish dance teacher, so I could one day own my own school. As so often is the case, however, I got injured, my focus and motivation waned, I discovered boys, and drinking, and smoking weed, and parties. Things I fastidiously avoided in high school in order to remain on track for my goals. The truth was, by the time I was 21, I realized I had kind of forgotten to have a rebellious teenage phase, and had spent all of my time being safe and good and maybe missed out on some fun? Don’t worry, my lack of drinking in high school got more than made up for in my early 20s. So, my focus shifted, and then a few years later, I moved back to Los Angeles.

I continued dancing in Los Angeles for a bit, but it became more difficult to juggle commuting to classes with my original teacher, Bella, while being enrolled in Cosmetology School (add to the il st o stories for another time), and attempting to live as an adult. Eventually my injury, which had never properly healed (another story for another time) caught up with me, and effectively ended my solo competition career. I would occasionally take a place in a team for competition but also really struggled with all of the demands of being an adult without a college degree or job, and the expense of life in Los Angeles, and paying for all my own dance classes etc. I fell away from dance, mostly out of necessity, and I missed it, but I also couldn’t see how it could still fit into my life the way it had before. I tried off and on for years to find a way to stay involved in dance, and I even made plans and studied to take the TCRG exam (more stories for another time,) but ultimately adulthood and life in general won out, and I realized again that my priorities, my motivations, and my goals had shifted. In the end, it sometimes felt like my last flying leap had hit a brick wall.

If you had told me when I was about 15, that as an adult Irish dance would be mostly a memory, I would have been horrified. Irish dance was nearly my entire life. What would I possible be without it? Sometimes, I still struggle with that question. What are we when we have moved away from the defining aspects of our lives? Who am I without Irish dance, and do I have value, or anything interesting to add to the world without it? I have spent the better part of a decade trying to answer these questions, and often come up blank. Not only was Irish dancing a hobby, but it was a connection to my Irish heritage. My mother’s parents immigrated to the US from Ireland in the 1930s, and died before I was born. I put a lot of value in my connection to them through dance. I put a lot of value in my connection to my Irish American family through dance, and eventually singing. But, nobody is just their talents or hobbies, and the truth is, the skills I learned in Irish dance have continued to serve me well into adulthood.

Hard work, discipline, sportsmanship, teamwork, goal setting: all skills I learned and honed while learning Irish dance, and competing over the course of close to 15 years. I’m not 100% certain on the actual number of years because math is not my strong suit but the point is, having goals is important. Being flexible and capable of recognizing when your goals no longer align with the life you are living is equally important. Changing your path, or your goals does not mean you are flakey, or lazy, or afraid of hard work, although people may tell you otherwise. It simply means you have a better understanding of your priorities and what it will take to accomplish your new or different goals. When your goals shift, sometimes it’s because you realize you no longer have the passion to put in the work necessary to reach your previous goal, and that’s fine. Sometimes goals shift due to personal or professional challenges, sometimes they shift because opportunities come and go. It’s important for us to normalize changing and shifting focus as our lives change and shift. Life does not actually move forward in a perfectly linear fashion, no matter how much we would like to convince ourselves otherwise. This is true of any goal, personal, or professional, and I encourage you to be brave, and willing to recognize when a path or goal no longer serve you. Be willing to take your own flying leap. You may get push back from peers, from family, from colleagues. Take that with a grain of salt. That isn’t to say you should completely ignore the important people in your life if or when they express concern, but it is to say, ultimately you are in the driver’s seat, and it is your life. You are the person who has to live with the work and effort needed to achieve your goals. No one else can do the work for you, so if other people have opinions that aren’t helpful, you have my permission to ignore them. This will upset people, this is a great time to utilize a quote from one of my favorite movies, The Princess Bride, “get used to disappointment.”

Ultimately, taking a flying leap is scary; who knows where we will land? You might fall off a horse, or tear ligaments in your foot, or fail spectacularly at an exam, but taking the leap and failing is just as useful as taking the leap and truly flying. If you never leap, you’ll never fly, and to be honest, even falling feels a hell of a lot like flying at first.