By Lise Funderburg
O the Oprah Magazine
Recently I failed to win a fellowship that would have underwritten two years of creative bliss. I would have been able to write that novel and not worry about the mortgage or the repairs that in my ramshackle old house I’ve come to expect. The letter was apologetic and brief. I wanted to crawl under a rock. I wallowed. I blamed. I bought new shoes.
After a decent amount of time spent feeling extremely sorry for myself; I started to sort out what I could salvage. I still wanted to write my book, and suddenly it was clear that my future should not rest on the decision of an anonymous panel of judges. What I need to do, I thought, is figure out some other method of accomplishing the same goal, even if that required making a way out of what, at the moment, felt like no way at all. In school, where we learn the F word, failure packs such a wallop because it seems to be the end of the story. That letter was our grade, our identity. Some of us never outgrow that notion. The mere fear of failure, my friend Kathy says, has hobbled her choices in work — and, sometimes, relationships — for much of her life. But as the four women here point out, failure turned out to be the beginning of their stories, not the end. Failure redirected them to triumph in some vital part of their lives. They took the blow, felt awful, and then not only found a way to learn from the mess but ended up in a far better place. What each of them has recognized is the paradox that success requires a willingness to risk failure.
Terry Gross is the host and an executive producer of Fresh Air, the award-winning interview show on National Public Radio. Gross, 50, has been hosting since 1975 — more than half her life — talking to a wide range of guests, from Al Green to David Sedaris to Jimmy Carter. All of them are subject to Gross’s mild-mannered but hard-hitting questions and her relentless enthusiasm for substantive conversation. She loves what she does. It wasn’t always that way.
“In college I thought I wanted to be a writer, and then I realized that my writing wasn’t nearly good enough to justify that ambition. And then I got caught up in things like the antiwar movement and the women’s movement, and watching movies and going to concerts and poetry readings. And suddenly I was stuck needing a career.
So I figured I would become a teacher. Not because I felt called to teach but because I knew how to do that. You take your classes. You become a student teacher. Then you take a test. You’re assigned to a school and, poof, you’re a teacher. I knew there wouldn’t be insurmountable obstacles to getting a job.
But I happened to graduate at a time [I972] when there was a glut of teachers. I didn’t get an assignment till the day after election day: I was given a job teaching junior high school at the toughest inner-city school in Buffalo, and I didn’t have a clue how to be an authority figure. I had spent my undergraduate years challenging authority. Suddenly I was the authority. I wanted to be the kind of teacher I had always wanted to have. So I showed up in my purple corduroy jeans and work boots. Now, this was not the teacher that my students needed. They were mostly very poor. Many came from broken families. They needed order and structure in their lives. And I needed anarchy in my life because I had come from a very structured, very middle-class family. What I needed and what I was ready to give were exactly the opposite of what they needed.
For instance, when they saw my purple corduroy jeans and work boots, they ribbed me about seeing me at the Salvation Army. One of the students finally told me he thought I was saving my good clothes for the people I really cared about. So I ran out and bought myself some nice clothes — pleated skirts and sweaters that matched. And, oh, they loved it. People showed up at the door just to look at me.
I was a disaster as a teacher. It was constant chaos in the classroom. I’d hand out books; students would throw them at each other. There were usually more kids in the hallway than in the class. One student accused me of having a heroin habit. That spread through the system, and the teachers sent a letter to the superintendent of schools, saying I was suspected of being a junkie.
I was the hippie of the school, and there were all these preconceptions about hippies and drugs. They said that since I wore long sleeves, it was probably to hide track marks. Of course’ the kids were wearing coats in class all the time because they were afraid if they hung the coat up, it would get stolen. It was just one paradox after another.
Anyway, around my six-week anniversary, the supervisor from the board of education came down to watch me teach. And as the students were filing out, they overturned a bookcase, sending a clear message that things were not working out. The students knew the message they were sending.
So I was…I was fired. I was fired. I’d desperately wanted to quit, but I was afraid to. I heard a voice in my head –I think it was my mother’s — saying, Don’t be a quitter. And I kept thinking, Maybe it will get easier. Maybe I’ll get better. Maybe someday the students will like me instead of telling me that they’ll slash my tires after class. It was like I was in a movie — but it was the wrong part for me. I didn’t know how to play the part. I would just stand there and watch as if I were in the audience. This was a lot of what was going wrong: I would just stand there and observe, as opposed to taking action.
When they fired me, I was grateful right from the start — they did me such a favor. Because I didn’t have the courage to quit. You know, people often think you quit because you lack the courage to persevere. I think you often don’t quit because you lack the courage to get the hell out when you should. You don’t want to think of yourself as a failure that quickly. You want to think, Well, I was really lousy; but then I got good. Of course, the “then I got good” stuff wasn’t happening.
So I was glad they fired me. And I felt great. I felt like somebody had liberated me from a prison. The prison wasn’t the school, per se. It was being in a job that I was ill-equipped to do. After I was fired, I fell back on my typing. I was very fast — millions of errors, but really fast. So I got a job working for temporary agencies. After a few weeks, I thought, Okay; what the hell am I going to do? I knew I needed a profession. I wanted to fall in love with work. I wanted to fall in love with something. So what is it?
I had this vague idea I’d like to get into media, but I didn’t know how to get started. I just stumbled into public radio because I had time and because I was looking. Had I still been teaching, I never, ever would have found it. It’s possible I would have become an adequate teacher, but I don’t think I would have fallen in love with it the way I did with radio. I loved it the moment I started doing it.
I think we’re shaped by failure at least as much as we’re shaped by our successes. When I have guests on a show, I like to talk to them about their failures — not to show them up, but because that’s part of what defines us. Sometimes it’s not the cheery, upbeat lessons that really explain how a person got to be where they are. It’s the things they failed at, the things they tried to do and couldn’t do. The things they’re still struggling to do. And even the artistic style, if you’re an artist, is often based on struggling to sound like your influences and failing, and through that effort finding your own voice.
We’re taught to be afraid of failure. But it’s really not the worst thing if you’re resilient enough to get up and keep going. Sometimes when you fail, it’s for a good reason. You’re doing the wrong thing. And sometimes, as in my case, the failure is doing you a favor.”
Lisa Rau is a partner in a civil rights law firm and lives in Philadelphia with her husband and two sons. Just this spring Rau, 41, won a citywide election to become a judge. She’d had a dream of combining justice with public service for decades. But the win, as she recounts below, was preceded by a first try two years earlier that resulted in a very public loss.
“The day of the first election, I got a call from a reporter who said, “The word on the street is that you are going to be one of the unendorsed candidates who will win. And I want to know where you’re going to be when you get the results so I can talk to you.” So I’m feeling really good. And then I lost. It wasn’t like I got slaughtered. But almost winning doesn’t get you to be almost a judge. You throw in everything you have and these volunteers around you have thrown all this into a campaign. And then you lose and you have nothing. Or at least that’s what it felt like.
My oldest son, who was 7, saw me cry and the next day he said to me, “I’ve never seen you cry before. I guess you really wanted it.” Seeing me cry made such an impact on him. It really sank in.
I promised my family that if I didn’t win this second time, I would never run again because it was just too hard on them. My son went with me to the polls the day of the election, and when we got in the car afterward, there’s this silence. And he goes, “Mom, you know what? Even if you don’t win this time, you can still run again. And you can keep running again until you win, because I know you really want it.”
It must have taken so much for him to say that. I had been gone every night for months. But he wanted me to get what I wanted. I thought that was so strong for a little boy.
One of the biggest things I learned from running was that it really takes a whole team. I guess it takes a whole team for a lot of things you want in life. But we’re afraid to ask people to help us. So the second time around I was braver about asking. I asked everyone.
We also don’t talk about failure enough, and that’s part of why everyone is so scared by it. One of the things that’s great about failure is, it’s never as bad as you think it’s going to be. You think it’s going to be the end of the world, and it’s really not. The people who loved you still love you. You find out who your real friends are: the people who call the next day or who treat you just the same way. And you realize that your best relationships are not about whether you win. They’re about you — all of you, even the part that loses. That makes you feel stronger and invincible, because you realize you can fail and survive. It’s not as critical for you to win. But it also makes you able to try again, because you know that if you lose you don’t die. I would have been happy winning the first time. But wow, you really, really appreciate it after having lived with losing. ”
Fifteen years ago, artist Lily Yeh gave up on trying to make it in the art world. It was the 1980s, and as former classmates from the University of Pennsylvania graduate program were winning Guggenheim fellowships, Yeh was getting a form letter of rejection for every application she sent out. Almost without meaning to, she started a small park project on art in one of North Philadelphia’s most drug-infested neighborhoods, and it blossomed into the Village of Arts and Humanities, a nonprofit organization that builds community through art both locally and around the world, in places as various as Nairobi, the Republic of Georgia, and Ecuador. As Yeh looks back, she believes that original park site was simply her destiny.
“My career was a big flop. I had been trained in the Chinese scholar painting tradition and I was just struggling. I remember Rilke in Letters to a Young Poet. He said, Don’t write poetry unless you’ll die if you don’t. I was searching — and I didn’t know for what. The first grant I ever got was this funding to make an art park out of a trash-filled lot. I had a huge lot. I was scared. I wanted to bow out. I thought, You’re Chinese, you’re a woman, you’re in the drug-infested badlands, you don’t have the skills, you haven’t even heard about community building before.
As I was getting ready to write a letter of resignation, a voice in me said, You have to rise to the occasion or the best in you will die. We always have that voice; we just have to make a choice to listen to it. We all have it; that’s God’s given light. It’s just whether you have the courage to step into your destiny.
Through the Village, I am connected to a deeper source. It’s not for recognition or reward or money. We are still not recognized as art for art’s sake. We’re seen as art for the purpose of building community. But that’s not my problem. If I don’t do this, I die inside.
If I had been very successful — lots of sales and tons of money — the success might have been so glamorous and the profit so great that it would have made me not listen to my inner voice. I would maybe have been seduced by success in the world. Failure was a protection for me.”
Carol Venezia has exhibited her series of photographs on American boxers, Italian craftsmen, and living saints around the world. She lives in New York with her second husband, painter Michael Venezia. They have a lively marriage, full of laughter and adventure and tremendous respect for each other’s art. They’ve been married for 21 years and have a college-age son. Carol says with no uncertainty, “The success of my second marriage has a tremendous amount to do with the failure of the first.”
“The deal with my first marriage was that I would go to graduate school at the Rochester Institute of Technology and my husband would support me, and then he would go to graduate school. He hated the city. He ended up getting a job out of town, and things deteriorated quickly from there on. We were going to therapy and trying to work it out and he was writing me letters philosophizing about how we were soul mates, but we should be like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, who didn’t live in the same place but had this lifelong love. Which was convenient for him, but I really needed his financial support. I needed his emotional support.
I finished my graduate work and I had to find a teaching job somewhere. I was nervous. I knew things weren’t great between us, but I was assuming we would work it out. I called and said, “I’m job- hunting. And I don’t quite know where to start. Where should I look?”
And he said to me, “If you find a job somewhere I like, I’ll come. And if you don’t, I won’t.”
Something in that was the final straw for me. In my mind, my marriage ended at that moment and I knew I was going to move on. It was like my spirit, my inner self, was speaking to me really clearly, which it hadn’t been doing. I had been hanging on to this marriage, hanging on to my hopes for it. And I was trying to adapt to all his ideas of being separate but together. But it didn’t fit for me. It didn’t make me happy.
The bad news was my marriage was ending, but the good news was I was doing what I wanted to do in photography; being nourished artistically for the first time in my life. So I got a job in the New York area and started seeing Michael, who was an artist. I was terrified to open my heart to him. But even though I was an emotional wreck, I felt stronger as a person. So I could be with this powerful man, who was a challenge and an equal, not one of the troubled boys I’d always been the caretaker for.
At that time in my life I was really broke. I’d had surgery recently; I had student loans and a broken-down old car. One of the first things Michael did was to hand me $100 to get the car fixed. It was like, “Here — no strings attached.” I just wept. I don’t think anyone had ever done something like that for me in my life. Even my parents. It was a real turnaround.
The hard part was giving up on my first marriage, acknowledging its failure. I was trying to hang on to the positive things. And maybe I learned that from my mother, who hung on to what I think was a failure in terms of a marriage. Certainly the message I got from my mother was: You don’t give up. But it was the failure of my first marriage that led to my resolve to be with someone as different and unknown as Michael — and to say, “I’m going to make this leap. Even though it scares me, it’s for good reasons.” I finally said, “Wait a minute, I’m not going to hold back my life for a dream that hasn’t worked out.”