When We Think We’re Failures

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I’ve been thinking a lot about failure. More than usual.

It dawned on me that something was going off the rails when I realized that the self-help book I’d been listening to on my morning commute had just been playing on a loop. For like months.

So, what was it? What had changed?

It wasn’t my circumstances, for I’d been through much harder times.  I’ve been a writer for enough years to – maybe arrogantly, probably because that’s definitely in my wheelhouse – believe that I had found my sea legs. That I had the ability to weather the storms and understood the ins and outs of this literary life filled with rejection and uncertainty. I knew the rules. Or, at least, I thought I did.

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At my job, we’ve been talking a lot about how people work. Back in 2015, Google conducted over 200+ interviews with their employees in search of the right algorithm for what makes a great team. I know. They asked their employees to grade on a scale of one through five – these five different areas of their worklife. 1. Psychological safety: can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed. 2. Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time? 3. Structure and clarity: Are goals, roles and execution plans on our team clear. 4. Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us. and 5. Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters.

What we noticed when we filled it out, was that if the Meaning of Work column scored a 5 that all the other categories ranged in the 4s and 5s and conversely if the Meaning of Work column was a 1, everything else was shit.

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To put it in the terms that I’d been weighing lately, could it be as simple as, if I found my work meaningful, I was a success. If I found my work meaningless, I was a failure.

So, was my bout with failure more about me losing sight of what was meaningful?   Or was it that failure had come to define a spectrum of things in my life, but the definition of success had narrowed to just one scenario. Super specific. Breathtakingly conditional. And rooted in aspects of a life and a person that I could never be.

I think it’s a combination of both.

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My definition of success was unattainable, but failure was in every corner of my life. Meaning and success had come to be defined as THIS ONE THING – this Magnum Opus, this great work that I clearly felt, I was being held back from doing, so all the work – and the life I was leading – was being labeled meaningless or … a failure.

I watched this TED talk – which means, I wanted to watch one TED talk and instead found myself ten hours later starving, frightened, bleary eyed and still somehow watching TED talks – but it was about how we work. And this man was talking about how they did this study where they had two groups of people. First group. Person walked in, they asked them to build a bionocle (a little lego man) for $3. They informed them that at the end of the study they were going to take apart all the bionocles and put them back in the box. The person built the bionocle. They took it. Gave them another one, but this time said they would be paid $2.70. And on and on they went down by 30 cent increments. Second group. Person walks in, they asked them to build a bionocle for $3. The person builds bionocle. Person hands bioncle back. They ask if they want to make another bionocle, but this time they’ll get paid $2.70. Person agrees, starts to make bionocle – but this time, the entire time the person is making the bionocle their other bionocle is being taken apart in front of their face. They hand back the bionocle and so it goes.

The study showed that the first group made 11 bionocles before tapping out. The second? Just 7. Which tells me, that no matter the money if you think what you’re doing is all for naught – or meaningless – you will stop doing it.

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Because that’s what is at stake here. If we think that we are failures and that what we’re doing is meaningless, we will stop doing it – no matter the money or how much we love it.

If we think that only our one Magnum Opus is meaningful, but not the steady backbreaking work that we do on ourselves and our craft every day then we will tragically never have the skill to be able to create that Magnum Opus that we’ve dreamed of. We have to change those definitions so that success and meaning are everywhere – that copywriter job you had to take actually taught you how to not only work on deadline, but be as succinct as possible. That web series you made that no one saw, taught you how to show not tell and that if you put your mind to it you actually could finish something. That one play you’ve been trying to write with those three friends? May never get finished, but you’ve learned how to collaborate, how to take notes, how to give notes and how to tell a story in a different way.

There is meaning everywhere. There is success everywhere.

We fail only if we abandon the curiosity and wonder is takes to find it.

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What Chef’s Table Taught Me About Writing

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There is some damn good TV out there.  Between Stranger Things, Atlanta, Chef’s Table, The Great British Bake Off and Stranger Things with Pugs I’ve been pretty booked.

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Atlanta has me staring off into the middle distance and kind of crying. Stranger Things means I’m buying like 30 strands of Christmas lights this year and the Great British Bake Off is… I mean, it’s just a delight.

But, it’s Chef’s Table that’s got me scribbling down quotes and thinking about art.

Comparing and jealousy and patience and what am I doing and is this right? and trust and vulnerability hangovers and confidence and belief and hope and fear and terror and loneliness and resenting that I love writing way more than it loves me.

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And this poisonous venom feels so right as it infects:  Look what they have.  Be like them maybe?  Maybe you’ve missed the wave?  What if you’re not Judy Hopps, but one of the other siblings who’s just a carrot farmer?

Along with just the sheer beauty of the show and watching these life spans of people’s creative genius (never a straight path.  ever.) There’s something so… calming and familiar and inspiring about it.  It’s the good stuff.

But, when even that doesn’t do it, sometimes I need a quote.  To be the hand over the cliff when I’m spiraling.  These quotes helped me, maybe they’ll help you:

“I always believed growing up that I was supposed to pay my dues in order to get anywhere in life. I’d have to work hard at it.  And I thought okay, I’m going to have to work really hard to make something happen – to learn something – but someday when all is said and done and I feel ready enough, I’m going to do my own thing and just be free.” 

—Niki Nakayama of n/naka

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“As a creative person you’re always influenced by the experiences you have and if one of them is that you’re constantly relating to other similar restaurants, that’s, you know, going to affect what you do. 

If you look at the whole restaurant world and you look at certain bigger cities, there is a feeling to many of the restaurants that tie them together. 

At Fäviken we don’t have to relate to anything that we don’t want because it’s just us here. Just this little universe.

It’s kind of limitless, you know?”

—Magnus Nilsson of Fäviken

Let us all ease up on ourselves.  Learn.  Work hard.  Stay in our own lanes. And when all is said and done, BE FREE to make the kind of LIMITLESS art we can be proud of.

 

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When Women Shush Women

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It’s a familiar scene.  A Facebook comment thread has gone off the rails and you’re locked in a debate with someone you only seem to know online. You kind of knew them in real life, at least in the beginning, which you’re now seriously questioning.

Such was the case with me this last week.  My sister posted something on Facebook and the comments, as they have done in this political cycle, devolved into that unlovely blend of entitled misinformation and smugness that conveys the message that they, unlike you, are one of The Good Guys.

And my sister and I have had it.  This year has broken us or freed us, or a little of bit of both. So, instead of being the Backyard BBQ/Jackie O versions of ourselves, we cried havoc and let slip the dogs of war.

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We were immediately smacked down – not because of what we said – but because of the tone in which we said it.  I was a ‘thug.’  I wasn’t being ‘diplomatic or caring.’  My sister needed to work #together and ‘travel the high road’ with ‘intelligent and calm discussion.’

Keep in mind, the women who said these things had contributed nothing of substance on the subject at hand. No solutions, no opinions. Their sole (and self-appointed) job on that Facebook thread (in their eyes) was to judge and monitor the tone and manners of other women, while placing themselves above the fray. Which was where someone of their high moral character belonged, not down in the muddy arena with the rest of us war dogs.

It’s a fun thing we do to each other.

Three years ago, I wrote an article for Hello Giggles called, The Science of Mean-Girling, in which  I tried to unpack this dynamic. Yet, in the years since I’m no clearer on why certain women are fighting so hard to shush, minimize and shame their sisters into silence.  What I do know, is that it’s nothing new.

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Depicting a ‘mouthy’ woman as unladylike, shrill, unattractive, a bad mother and wife (if they’re lucky to be married at all) and inelegant is a tale as old as time. But, what fascinates me is how effective and potent the barbs continue to be.

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Because, their punches landed.

Tossing and turning, eyes popping open at 4AM – ever since my little Facebook scuffle, I’ve been plagued with doubts.  Rewriting my comments.  Editing.  Massaging.  Softening.  Until this morning. Pacing around my  dark and quiet house I mumbled, “I should’ve just not said anything.”

I should’ve just not said anything.

That’s what happens, right?  It’s another fun thing we women do. Minimize our own voices – or that of other women –  until we disappear all together.

Because how many times has someone said the following to us:

“It’s not worth it.”  “I don’t want to make it weird.”  “They probably didn’t mean it.”  “It’s no big deal.”  “I’m just being melodramatic.”  “I’m overreacting.”  “Calm down.”  “Relax.” “You’re being hysterical.” “You’re so emotional.”

Now, how many times have we said those things to ourselves.

That’s what worried me.

But, then I thought of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous Man in the Arena speech.

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(I’ve made a few small changes. It helps if you imagine Lady Mormount from Game of Thrones saying it.)

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“It is not the critic who counts; not the woman who points out how the strong woman stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the woman who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends herself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if she fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that her place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

I am in the arena.  Hear me roar.  I AM IN THE ARENA.

And I have no time for people who aren’t.

Join me in the arena, won’t you?

 

 

 

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The Dangers of Flowery Advice

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My youngest niece is in the process of choosing a college.  She visited one of the campuses this past weekend hoping for some lightning bolt moment where she would know it was the right one.  In one of the panels she went to for her chosen major, a prospective student asked how each of the panelists knew that particular college was for them.

“I just knew.”

And my niece was just… left cold and wondering what was wrong with her that this was not her experience.

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This got me thinking about the subtle dangers of this kind of flowery advice.  Follow your dreams!  You’ll just know when he/she is the one!  Shoot for the moon, even if you miss you’re still among the stars!

Two things:

1)  Life is complicated.

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What if you don’t “just know?”  What if you want someone who’s been through it to be authentic and sit down with you and tell the truth of things.  Why didn’t someone on that panel say, “You know what?  I didn’t know for sure.  I was scared and this place felt the most right, but I also gave myself permission to change my mind.  Mostly I was just scared.”  Flowery advice takes the messy humanity out of things.  It doesn’t offer itself up for a follow up question, you know?

You: Oh, you just knew?  Like how?

Them:  I just knew.  

You: Right. But, how?  Like… what did that feel like?  

Them:  I just knew.

You: Right. But…

Them:  I just knew. 

Why is it that we’re compelled to rewrite our own history so we have all the answers?  What is it about us that wants to smooth over our past and make our entire life look like a shampoo commercial?  What are we getting out of making someone who’s struggling feel like they’re alone in it?  Who benefits from this?

This kind of advice feels like a shallow placeholder for a never gonna happen future conversation.

And yes, I get that that panelist may have just “known.”  That absolutely happens for some.    But what I also know is that — and God, I hate how true this is – the really juicy connections are made in moments of vulnerability.  Why is the appearance of effortless, wafting ease tantamount to authenticity and actual kinship?

You’re not alone.  I feel lost, too. Shit can be messy, right?  It was hard for me, too.  It’s going to be okay.

2) Sometimes advice is kind of boring

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A writer friend of mine got an email from a newbie writer.  The newbie was struggling.  Her debut novel was a smash, the second one not so much.  She was writing my friend asking for advice.  So my friend – a writer whose work ethic is enviable and has finally (and so deservedly) landed her on top – said that the only power any of us have is to sit back down in the chair and write another book.  Do the work.  This is what my friend did during the trials and tribulations of her own career.  The newbie writer was luke warm at the prospect. Months later my writer friend read a blog by this newbie saying she was going to wait for the muse to strike!  She was going to follow her bliss!  No mention of actual work.

I’m all for a great pep talk.  Sometimes it’s just about listening to someone talk about how hard shit is.  No advice.  Just a friendly ear.  My worry is that there are those who rely on flowery advice so much so that one’s role can lean towards enabling from time to time.

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And of course I’m not advocating for some kind of black and white Giver-esque world where everyone finger-wags at each other to get back to work.  A beautiful meme prominently featuring delicious words of inspiration has hit me right when I needed it. I love a good quote.  I love a moody lyric.  I’ve even been known to spout luxurious poetry more than my friends and family probably would have liked. I’m also not proposing we walk around as open wounds spouting our grief and misery for anyone and everyone.  Pretty sure people who do that are just as into appearances as the ones begging us to look for the rainbow after the hurricane or whatever.

That’s not what this is about.

Whatever the advice you decide to give someone, please let it be rooted in the truth of things.  How it was, not how you wished it would have been.

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And PS?  If you do decide to tell the truth of things and admit that things were hard?  There will 100% be some sighing douche who is all, “Oh?  It was super easy for me.”

Ooooooh.

JOAN.

But, in that moment there is a person in the audience who doesn’t feel so alone because of your bravery to speak the truth.  And that? Is far more valuable than acting like one’s entire life could be soundtracked to Enya.

(not that there’s anything wrong with that)

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