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.