Learning from Failure

As we ended 2016, a 29-year old woman went to work and had a really bad night. A lot of people have bad shifts, but I'm willing to bet she was probably the only one that night who did it in front of more than 18,500 people with millions more watching live at home or bars. Traditional and social media covered it within minutes showing pictures and videos of her beaten face, describing her 48-second destruction and calling for her immediate retirement. Articles noted her previous suicide attempt and hoped that she would pull through the devastating loss.

I'm not a fan of mixed martial arts, but at the time my heart went out to Ronda Rousey.

In that moment I started and abandoned a blog post. For more than a month she was silent in social media as everyone sat on the sidelines of her life and speculated about her next steps. Tonight I sat down to write and thought, hmmm, I wonder whether she has found her way out yet? A quick Google search revealed that just yesterday she emerged with a single quote on her Instagram account.

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I hope the post means that she's finding a way to pull herself back up, to recognize that her worth as a human being will not be defined by a single night. I hope so.

Our culture is framed in a ridiculous binary where the people either win and get everything or lose and have nothing. I cringe every time I hear phrases like "second place is first loser" or "to the victor go the spoils" because they reinforce the idea that if you can't win you shouldn't play. It's like every dystopian novel, filled with triumphant winners and cringing losers.

That's a load of crap.

It's not that I'm against winning. Everyone who knows me knows that I am a feisty competitor and I like a medal or an "A" as much as the next guy. It's just that I haven't learned a damn thing about living from my wins. Every single worthwhile story in my life is built around a loss. The time when I fell just yards from the line at states. The time when I swung for the fences applying to graduate school and got rejected. The time when I tried to do a no-win job and failed. Losing has helped me recognize the value of a life well-lived, relish my diversity of experiences and create a community of support. Winning I was a cocky entitled pain in the ass. Losing taught me grace.

We don't celebrate failure (or more importantly the growth that comes from failure) often enough. Look, I get it. Success is sexy and failure is messy. Failure requires a good hard look inside yourself to ask painful questions. Did I try as hard as I could? Was I as prepared as I could have been? Was I in over my head? Who did I harm? Can I try again? Should I?

Some days I think it's easier to just win, but easier isn't better.

So, I'm pulling for Ms. Rousey. I hope that she's finding a way to look inside herself and find a woman that she respects and loves. I hope she recognizes that whether she continues to fight or never steps into the arena again she has value and can contribute to the world. Sure, I'm an out of shape middle-aged desk jockey, but if I could I would sit down with her and assure her that nothing about her life is predetermined at 29. I would look into her eyes, thankful to be sitting with her and not the winner, and I would ask her one question.

What did you learn?

Lucky

More than a year ago I walked into a colleague’s office to talk about work and ended up talking about life. I told him that I was lucky, that my unique combination of circumstances had given me the opportunity to have a fulfilling career, a loving family and a happy life. I contemplated out loud the thousands of other women just like me who were born in the early 70’s and who hadn’t had my lucky breaks. We talked for a long time and he rejected my entire premise, telling me time and time again that luck had nothing to do with it. He assured me that my capabilities alone had led to my success.

At the time I was surprised how forcefully he rejected the entire conversation, but I’m not anymore. This week I’ve been listening to a five part podcast called Busted: America’s Poverty Myths. I’ve enjoyed the thoughtful discussion, the interviews and the facts, but what struck me most was a quote by author E.B. White embedded within the third episode:

“Luck is not something you can mention in the presence of self-made men.”

It seems to me that The American Dream requires an unwavering belief in the equal possibility of meritorious success regardless of circumstances. If you reject that idea and accept instead that two equally intelligent, hard-working and virtuous individuals may not achieve success simply because of the fickle finger of fate where does that leave you? Are you a defeatist? A whiner? A ne’er do well who expects life handed to you on a platter?

I don’t think so.

We have all met individuals who have had every lucky break fortune can provide and somehow failed to build a life they consider successful. We have also met individuals who seem to be stalked by a dark storm cloud and yet fight through it to achieve greatness. After all, if you spend enough time keeping your eyes open you’ll see examples of just about every possible experience. But the data is pretty compelling — most people, including me, need a combination of good fortune and skill to achieve their potential. In most cases you need to be both lucky and good.

I tend to focus a lot on the lucky half of my success; I look back at circumstances not of my own making and attribute my outcomes to that. I downplay my own hard work, commitment and perseverance because I tend to see those attributes as table stakes, just the things that need to be done and done well. When I think about being “self-made” I choke on the very premise. I recall instead:

  • My luck at being born to two college-educated parents who relished the idea of a smart and driven daughter.
  • My luck at finding friends who supported me for the person I was.
  • My luck at emerging from my teenage years without an unplanned pregnancy or tragic accident.
  • My luck at having a father who said, “we’ll make sure you can go to whatever college you can get into” and meant it.
  • My luck at finding a man who understands me, my potential and what we can be as a team.
  • My luck at choosing a graduate program that put me in the path of a mentor who has supported me professionally ever since.
  • My luck at giving birth to two healthy kids at a time in human history when medical intervention meant I could survive the experience.

Yes, I like to think that I have made the most of the luck that I have been given, but to suggest that those moments didn’t impact my current happiness and situation is patently false. Erase any of those moments — not one of which has anything to do with my character or capabilities — and I would not be the person I am today, living the life I am living. I am lucky, very lucky.

My grandfather liked to say that the secret to life was a thankful heart. Like many self-made men he could point to the many instances of hard-work, risk-taking and perseverance that helped him throughout his life. But unlike many self-made men he also freely acknowledged the many people and twists of fate that helped him along the way. He was quick to point to them in his life and his stories and I am convinced it was one of the reasons that he was so well-liked. His friends knew that he was remarkable and they knew that they were part of the reason why. He passed a simple truth onto me that has framed my entire life view.

There is no such thing as a self-made man — none of us that find happiness and success truly find it alone.