Inspire – Women of Dartmouth Stories

Reframing Failure

When you are the golden child, you are terrified of failure. You follow the path laid out for you, and achieve the goals set for you by those you love and are taught to respect. You study hard, even if the subjects are not of interest to you. What interests you? Who knows, as you are too busy following the path to “succeed” by someone else’s standards. What do you enjoy? Who knows, as you tell yourself you enjoy the things you excel at, that make them proud and happy. How could you enjoy something you aren’t good at? It is not even in your peripheral vision.

From that perspective, “Failure is not an option” is a mantra. If you fail, then you are not meeting your full potential. So, you live your life perhaps taking it easier, challenging yourself less, trying NOT TO FAIL, rather than looking for what might really light you up and then trying to SUCCEED at it.

But the concept of “not failing” is ridiculous. Intellectually you know that no one is perfect, and everyone fails. You’ve read and learned by seeing it enacted by others, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs to your own friends, that learning from failure is what drives expansion of knowledge and innovation, and perhaps… happiness?

So, when have I failed and what does it feel like?

I often see failure in myself when I am too afraid to try something if I MIGHT fail at it. My high school Head of School (then he was called the “Headmaster”) urged me, while I was at Dartmouth, to apply for a Rhodes Scholarship. I was amazed that anyone thought I could do something that prestigious, that BIG. But it seemed too lofty a goal, one I might not achieve amid such rarified competition, so I didn’t even try. Of course, to apply for a Rhodes, you need to have a passion in your studies. Did I have one of those? No, I simply took courses I thought would make my parents proud of me when I got As. So, Summa Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa honors were the rewards of not challenging myself to push harder for something out of the box. Hard to argue with that, really. When I was named Phi Beta Kappa, my 5-year-old cousin misunderstood, and sweetly said, “She’s so smart; she could have been SIX Beta Kappa!” It was just a joke to me. Academic honors were just something else I was expected to achieve, based on my track record of reaching common lofty goals. I did not self-celebrate, but simply looked at it like I’d just met one more expectation.

As my high school’s first All-American, I was recruited to play lacrosse at Dartmouth. I played well freshman year, sometimes starting and once being named Ivy Player of the Week. During sophomore year, I was on an FSP winter term, and came back not in shape to play at that level. When, at mid-season, I was asked to play in a JV game because I hadn’t made it into the varsity game, I was devastated. I did not even know the names of some of the women on my team, having never practiced with them. I remained on the varsity team, but felt ashamed that I had lost the ability to play and score. I was deflated and, knowing that I would be “off” again winter term of junior year, I stopped playing after only two years. I felt I had failed. I felt I had let myself down, as well as my teammates, my high school and college coaches, everyone who rejoiced with me that I’d excelled at the varsity level. I saw myself letting everyone down. Interestingly, I did not see it as an opportunity to do something else with all that time I had been devoting to lacrosse. That would have required creativity, which I felt I did not have.

Even though I quit playing college lacrosse, I had also been playing intercollegiate volleyball at the club level. (Though every other team in the Ivies was varsity, Dartmouth’s was not there yet.) On that team, I was a player-coach, a leader, and I stayed with that team for all four years. We did not win much, but I stuck with it, partly because I felt good in a leadership position, which I had grown to think I deserved because of my skills and abilities. I am wandering into entitlement here, which is also something that informs my concept of failure… but never having been a great endurance runner, I felt I dropped lacrosse partially because I was “too lazy” to just run my way back into shape.

(*I was reminded, when I shared this story with a good friend, that I had left out a key piece of why I came back to the team out of shape. I was living with a host family in Toulouse, and one day, when I was practicing drills against a high wall I found in the city, I had a strange feeling. I looked over my shoulder to see a man masturbating to the rhythm of my rubber ball rhythmically hitting the hard concrete wall. I took off running, and had a hard time motivating myself to run again for the rest of the FSP. My friend gave me permission to have grace for the 19-year-old who had gone through an emotional sexual trauma, and then blamed herself for one of its byproducts.)

When I reached senior year in college, I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. Many of my peers had pre-professional aspirations and were excited for grad school or corporate recruiting. I went along to the career center and looked at random job postings, wondering where I could fit in. I had no direction. As my friends got high paying job offers, I did not apply myself, probably because my parents didn’t set an expectation for me for after college. The “you can do whatever you want to do,” really fell on inexperienced ears, as I had never chosen what I wanted to do (aside from choosing to attend Dartmouth over Princeton – not really a rebel move…).

As I try to write what it feels like to fail, the only failures I can identify seem to be not winning a “big game,” or missing a deadline for an assignment or payment. Whenever that happened, I told myself a story about why we lost the game or I tried to get relief from the consequences of the late assignment or payment (like forgiveness or credit), as if I could “fix” a failure after the fact, to make it look less like I had failed.

It seems crazy that I can’t really think of BIG failures, though this could be due to one of two things. First, failure could be like childbirth in that it feels awful when you are going through it, but you forget that awfulness when it’s over and perhaps even do it again. Or, more likely for me, it could be that I do not challenge myself enough, precisely to avoid big failures. That’s what I think the answer is: I fail to achieve my potential because of fear.

Now, here I am, trying to rewrite my life at 57 (started at 56 after resigning from a toxic workplace and stepping away from a toxic friend group). I have embarked on a process to identify and live by my core values, and to find and speak my truths, which may have the effect of radically changing some of my closest relationships. There is no room for failure here. If I fail, I will have let only myself down. Which is why I must keep trudging through the swamp.

Part of this experiment I embarked upon, Truth is Beauty, was to do something indulgent every week and to explore my relationship with guilt. Have I failed because I have not really focused on that piece of it? I could name my trip to NYC as indulgence, visiting with friends and spending money on things that I might not normally spend on. (Money is a whole other issue…)  

Sometimes I think that the time I spend playing pickleball is indulgent. It breaks up my day and sometimes keeps me from being more “productive.” But I really enjoy it – the camaraderie with the people there and the fun of competing but not caring if you win or lose. Of course, I am happier when I play well than when I don’t, but is it an indulgence, or am I just doing what makes me happy? And isn’t that something I am supposed to be striving for? Finding things that make me happy?

Is chocolate an indulgence? Is a good bagel and lox, or a delicious gourmet meal? Is an alcoholic drink? Do I parse these out to myself, feeling like I must “earn” them by dieting or exercising or some other control-related activity? Do I feel guilty if I indulge in too much of any of these things? Why should I? It’s my body to do with as I please, right? Is it indulgent to get my nails done? I tend to look at it as a way to keep from picking at my nails so much, not simply because I like my nails to look good, so I justify this indulgence too. Massages, the occasional pedicure, the occasional energy healing… indulgences or self-care? Or, the ultimate indulgences in terms of cost – Canyon Ranch trips, the 7×7 and Mastermind coaching programs? I get something positive from all of these things, but somehow I feel I must justify whether or not they are worth the financial price I pay for them.

Three and a half pages in, I STILL have not identified “what it feels like to fail,” the original title of this piece. Do I feel like a failure as a wife because some of my feelings about my husband have changed since we married nearly three decades ago? Do I feel like a failure as a daughter, as I have finally begun to see my mother for what she really does and who she really is (demonstrated through her actions), and not who she wants people to think she is? NO, because I am really trying to honor my values and my truths in those relationships.

Do I feel like a failure as a parent when I see my kids stumble and I can’t “fix” things for them? This one I know the answer to: I do not because I hope they will learn to fail better than I did. My younger son failed to become a star athlete and turned that failure into a passion for broadcasting. My older son failed to find a niche at his first university, yet found a course of study that lights him up at another. I am not sure how much my daughter has failed, but she has come through the adversity of body shaming – in the world and in our family – and has embraced herself wholly while managing to succeed by so many other measures. I love that, and I love them all so unconditionally.

But through another lens, maybe they did not “fail?” My younger son may not BE an athlete, but playing on teams may have been the process through which he found his passion for broadcasting. My middle child may have had to go through COVID at a large university to realize he would be better off somewhere smaller doing something else. My daughter may have had to live life in a body that did not fit her original vision for herself, or that of family members, to forge her determination and strong self-concept.

But what does that mean for me? It feels like an unfulfilled expectation, and then disappointment, (with myself and of others) when I fail. Then, there is the summoning of the will to push forward, through the swamp, to the next hill, hoping I will have what it takes not only to climb it – to “bag that peak” – but to CHALLENGE myself to climb it in the first place.

What if I try to reframe failure? What if, instead of examining failure, I see success every time I speak my truth? What if I see success every time something is not meeting my values and I choose not to involve myself in it? What if I see success every time I indulge, because I know I am worth it, not because I “earned” it somehow? Maybe the question isn’t really what it feels like to fail, but to learn to identify success differently, and to relearn what it feels like to succeed. That is the mountain I must now climb, without fear of failure.

2 thoughts on “Reframing Failure”

  1. Kendall Carbone '88

    Thank you so much Elena for sharing this and for being willing to open yourself up and be vulnerable. So much of what you wrote resonated with me from being the ultimate people pleaser and always doing what your parents wanted rather than figuring out what we wanted to having a difficult time coming up with significant failures because we are too afraid to put ourselves out there and try things we might no be good at. I also struggle with what is an indulgence and what is OK to do just to make myself happy. I cannot wait to see you at reunion and catch up and discuss more in person. This was beautiful written and so thought provoking – thank you again!

  2. Betty DLax’87

    Elena- What an amazing question you gently encourage each of us to examine. Thank you for your stark truths that truly are a beautiful expression of your earned wisdom. You’re well on your way to developing Elena-isms (like our dear coach’s Josie-isms)
    “WHAT IF I SEE SUCCESS EVERYTIME…” soon to be added to my mirror alongside a few others. Thank you. Stupendous. You Scored.

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