When I was 19 years old, I found my life's calling. I was a sophomore in college, sitting in one of my first college-level English classes. We were assigned The Sorrows of Young Werther. I liked to read, sure, but Goethe? I was less than enthused... until I started to read it! The Sturm und Drang of a love triangle. The forbidden love that cannot -- must not -- be consummated... but is. Goethe was the 18th-century equivalent of a rock star, whose writing played a big part in ushering in the Romantic era and moving the world from logic to passion. What wouldn't appeal to a 19-year-old idealist?!
And that was it. Stick a fork in me, I was done. My whole life was mapped out in that one electric moment: I would take every requirement and elective offered by my English department. I would go to graduate school. I would write an artfully insightful and witty dissertation on... on... Well, I still had time to figure out the details of this part. I would get a job at a nice, small liberal arts college, and live out the rest of my life in academic splendor.
A few years later, I was on my way: I had received my BA in English, having taken all the courses my department had to offer. (OK, maybe I missed one or two.) I had been accepted into a decent graduate program, awarded a scholarship, and had been assured that they liked me. If I made the grades, a space in the Ph.D. program would be saved for me. Life was good.
The British have a very polite phrase for what happened next: they say that someone has been "sent down." We crass Americans would say that I'd been "86'd." At a combined MA/Ph.D. program, "graduating" into the PhD program is, traditionally, a formality. Apparently, I was to be the exception to the rule. Despite doing everything asked of me, I was asked to leave after completing my master's degree.
Devastated doesn't quite capture the entirety of my emotional, mental, and spiritual grief at being asked to leave. I had no "Plan B." I'd never failed at anything before. Ever. If my thoughts, doubts, and fears were a song, they'd be "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall," torturing me in never-ending loop of: "How can I be a failure? What did I do wrong? Why did they admit me if they didn't think I was smart enough? Didn't I work hard enough? Didn't I prove that I'm good enough for this program? Just tell me what I did wrong. I can change. Just give me a chance to prove that I can do it. If one of those bottles should happen to fall..."
Sixteen years later, I'm not bitter anymore. For the most part. Most days.
Even back then, I was aware that my experience probably didn't score terribly high on the failure chart of life. The only one hurt by my failure was me. Which of course, set me off on another round of failure spew about how I am feeling sorry for myself when many more people in the world have it much worse than I. And, of course, there is the failure of not being honest with anyone: Until this post goes live, most people in my life don't know that I was kicked out of my graduate program.
Thus, the failure crown becomes firmly attached to my head only to grow bigger and heavier with each subsequent failure in my life.
Cut to today: I'm in conversation with a very well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur/venture capitalist and the dean of a famous business school. We begin to discuss the merits of school-based incubators. The venture capitalist expresses some doubts about the model, and the dean says: "Well, isn't that what we want? For students to fail? For them to learn what it means to be an entrepreneur?" And I think to myself: "Great. Setting more kids up just so you can knock em down. That's just SUPER!"
Then, I really think about it. I re-consider what failure actually is, as opposed to all the things I associate with it. I begin to separate having failed from being a failure. I begin, for the first time, to feel... peace.
What if failure is neither good nor bad? What if failure is just one lesson (of many) intended to teach us who we are? Who we can be? That our worth is neither increased by our successes nor diminished by our failures? What would happen if we could accept that we are worthy simply because we are?
I invite you to consider the possibility.
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