There is nothing quite like a good failing: a failing grade, failing health, failed relationships, vehicle, intention, job or school application or, as the modern turn of phrase goes, “failing at life.” Rather broad statement, wouldn’t you say?
In my time as a student at VIU and now, gratefully, an employee, I have heard the majority of my peers and colleagues claim that their lives are in ruins and their careers are off track. This is usually due to a multitude of reasons: mental health, career dissatisfaction, abuse and more. Instead of looking at how we can frame failing in positive light, let us look at reality. We fail.
We fail a lot, in monumental ways, as individuals, as leaders, as a species. We know that we are harming the planet beyond the point of return. We know we drop the equivalent of one ton of plastic into the oceans every four seconds, globally. We know we consume meat and dairy at a rate commensurate to five Planet Earths’ worth of resources. But, this is not that article. I propose we look here at the internal and individual nature of “not quite making it.”
Here, 36th President of the United States Lyndon Baines Johnson’s (LBJ) story is of use to us (you’ll have to forgive my arcane political references, they are a passion of mine). With a career spanning 11 years in Congress and 12 years in the Senate representing Texas, few had the shrewd political skill LBJ exemplified. Following the assassination of his predecessor and his constitutional rise to the Oval Office, it is believed no other President could have negotiated such bipartisanship to pass the Civil Rights and Voting Rights bills that enfranchised millions of African Americans, while at the same time laying the groundwork for The Great Society, a suite of national social programs designed to eliminate poverty and strengthen welfare and public services. It is all the more unfortunate that five years later he would decline to seek re-election in the face of the escalating Vietnam War—during one of the most divided moments in American history.
Why have I taken you down this tangent? Johnson embodied high-minded ambition and soaring rhetoric fueled by a desire to enact meaningful change and reform. By going to university, by seeking out our careers through higher education, we, at the very least, share the same desire and ambition to see ourselves in a meaningful place in the future.
Most of us, if not all, will fail at that at some point. We will be knocked down a peg and shown that, in the words of the Italian Stallion Rocky Balboa: “The world is a very mean and nasty place [… that] will beat you to your knees and keep you there permanently if you let it.”
During my run as a full-time student, it appeared as if the trajectory was always trending upwards. I experienced a meteoric rise in accomplishment (meteoric, in this sense: measured by myself against my past self—the only useful metric). Grades, jobs, responsibilities, and relationships all got better, grander, and it felt as if I could take on anything. Since then, I have quit a job on a cruise ship, because the bosses were belittling and abusive, been through failed relationships, found myself in long periods of self-medication, been through alcohol and substance abuse, been denied higher education and seen what the suicide of a loved one can do to my family. I’ve been told these are not failing (alcoholism notwithstanding), but they sure knocked me down a peg.
I’m better for my failures. You are too.
You don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to find some truly horrendous circumstances that you have been through. More often than not, people carry these memories, traumas, guilt, and hurt around with them with a sense of shame and in some cases, of victimhood. To that I would say, own it. Fail like no one is watching. All of us will come up against a major setback in our lives that leaves us scratching our heads, wondering where we went wrong and feeling sorry for ourselves, oblivious to the fact that we have been handed a gift: an opportunity to grow.
Being knocked down make us who we are. You do not grow from a place of comfort. We have the ability to, in the words of David Goggins, “callous over our victim’s mentality” and use our setbacks, failures, and missteps as building blocks to get where we want to go.
If getting knocked down represents a ceiling, remember that your ceiling is just somebody else’s floor and keeping striving. Lyndon Johnson failed by leading his country down the road to an escalated war that was unwinnable. He took account of the situation and, once again, shrewdly realized a public exit was the best way to make use of failure. Yet, his attempts to build a truly great society in his day gave birth to Medicare, Medicaid, Public Broadcasting support, Head Start, and more, and are, according to Barack Obama, “now as fundamental to our conception of ourselves and our democracy as the constitution. . .” Not a bad failure.
We never know where our failings will lead us and what we will be able to do as a result.
As I write this, I am two days separated from quitting a residential support worker management job working with youth, and I’m now a night clerk. I do not and would never infer that one is “better” or “worse” than the other. I am so grateful to be back at VIU working with a team I have adored for seven years. But defined in general, out of context and purely in hierarchical terms, the former certainly carries an inherent prestige and, personally, a meaningful cause. Perhaps this lays bare my inspiration to write this article as some self-soothing aid to my ego. I choose instead to see it as a challenge to myself. We should all be out of sorts, in a place of feeling the need to get and be better. That’s how we fail properly.
Be accountable and embrace failure. I’ll probably fail at that, too.
But I’ll still strive.