I’ve been thinking a lot about failure. A few months ago, a friend thought a fundraising event she was leading was not going to make its expected financial goal. I tried to reassure her that even if that happened, it did not mean it was a failure and, more importantly, that she could not have worked any harder for this event.
These kinds of situations are not easy – when we have to reconcile the reality of what’s happening with our desire for the outcome we expect and with our personal values. Sometimes this is all in alignment and it’s perfect, and sometimes none of it is in alignment and it’s – like life – imperfect.
A few days after the event ended, which did end up meeting its financial goal, my friend and I were processing everything, and she said, in the moments when she thought it was not going to meet expectations, she sat on the couch with her husband and said, “I haven’t failed at anything in a long time.”
I have thought about this statement every day since she said it.
I knew how “me” I would have thought this was if she had shared it with me a few years ago. Like my friend, excellence is very important to me, and I work hard for anything and anyone I care about. But, in the moment that she said it, I felt removed from it.
I’ve been working on a big (B I G) project at school for so long now I honestly forget exactly how long it’s been. It’s been going on for several years. And it is important and consuming, and it has been the topic of so much conversation professionally and personally since it’s started.
The project has taught me a lot, and I think one of the biggest lessons has been about failure. When my friend said that she hadn’t failed at anything for a long time, I thought immediately of this project. I knew that before the project started, I would have shared my friend’s feeling without any reservation. I would have been able to completely relate, but not now. This project has not been a failure – and we are now in the final stretch of it so success really is in sight (literally) – but it’s felt like a failure many, many, many times. There have been – what feels like – countless moments over the course of it where we had to announce something was going to be different than we thought or be difficult for longer than expected or that we had a(nother) setback.
The project felt like a failure to me almost every time this happened.
And I felt like a failure, too.
So, basically, I’ve felt like a failure a lot over the past several years.
There is a distinction here, and I know it’s a real one. I know that if any project fails, it does not mean the person or people behind it do too, but it was hard for me to see before all of this started – or even in the middle of it at times.
But I think I do see it clearly now – even if my heart may sometimes struggle with it. Mostly I think I see it because I could never let myself dwell on these feelings. They were real and they were there, but they were not in the forefront. They couldn’t be. The project – and school in general – requires so much of me. It requires me to be clear-headed and organized and ready to give my best at every moment. So, even when I felt like I was failing, I had to keep going.
Feeling like I’m failing –and living with the uncertainty of that – gave me freedom. It forced me to stay in the present moment. It also forced me to distance myself from it all. Yes, I was in the middle of it, I was communicating information, and I was answering questions, but it wasn’t about me. It was about the project. This is also a hard distinction (especially if you’re me) but it’s one I’ve been learning along the way.
I think the other thing is this: I don’t think we can give ourselves to and invest ourselves in organizations or projects or events without believing that the cause is bigger than us. Why else would we do it? And so the paradox is if that’s true, that probably also means its success or failure or lessons (or all of the above) are bigger than us too.
Except for the 38th lesson in my 38 Things I Know for Sure post from February, I have not written anything about this project while it’s been going on. I think part of me never felt it was safe to do so because the outcome felt so uncertain so often. There’s more certainty now so this may be the first of a few posts about “the big project.” It’s also very important for me to say that I have not been alone in undertaking this big project, and I hope nothing I ever write on the topic makes it seem that way. As I wrote in February – and know for sure: “Persevering with a team – especially a team embodying mutual respect, hard work, attention to detail, good sense and good humor – makes persevering the only option even when it feels like it isn’t.”