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A Lesson on Failure

What is it about failure that makes life complicated? Is it the fear of failing? Is it letting others down? Is it feeling like you’re wasting time or talent? Is it feeling like you don’t have all the answers? Is it feeling depressed and not being able to get out of bed every day? Perhaps it is a combination of several actions. Or perhaps it is just a reminder that we need to keep what we experience in perspective.

The idea of failure is a red flag. It’s a reminder for us to understand that there are occurrences merely out of our control. That does not mean we are failures, nor are the actions we take.

In June 2014, I served as a panelist at the Annual UniPro Summit in New York City. Once I had a microphone in hand, I discussed how each failure I had experienced until that point were actually lessons in disguise. It was the first time I had been so vulnerable in a public space. I didn’t plan to talk about failure in front of an audience of over 100 young professionals and students from around the country. But I wanted to be honest and open. At that point, my “failures” were that I was no longer pursuing a career in the field that I had studied in college, that I was job hunting and underemployed for 8 months, and that I had moved back home to live with my family. In reality, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any of these three facts. But really, were these truths my failures? Or did they only exist in my mind?

Fast forward one year to a warm May evening. Eleven young leaders and myself were gearing up for our graduation ceremony in Wilkinsburg, PA, a community right outside of Pittsburgh. It was in Wilkinsburg that we kicked off our nine-month leadership development training program through Coro, a non-profit dedicated to growing leaders.

The Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs is no joke. It is rigorous and time-consuming. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and demands that you step outside of the box. From individual project placements with various government, business, non-profit and labor organizations, to whole group projects at the local, city, state and national level, we dove into the working world with drive to tackle challenges in society. We also faced personality clashes, socioeconomic divides, race and ethnic differences, and conflicting beliefs. To add some imagery, a euphemism we used to describe ourselves was: ‘twelve different people trying to drive the bus at once.’ It took time, but we figured out a flow to our chaos and perceived failures.

And there we were, nine months later, at the conclusion of our program. Each of us had prepared reflections from our time in the program. But most importantly, we were there to share glimpses of challenges and growth. The key insight that I shared with the fellows, staff, family, friends, project hosts, community members and Coro supporters that evening was this:

While caring for and giving to others is part of the human nature, it is even more important to care and give to oneself. In order to be an effective leader, one must exercise self-compassion. A specific way one can do this is by asking for help.

When someone tells us to not be afraid to “ask for help,” it’s not the final solution. It’s merely a tool for coping, managing stress and self-care. Asking for help doesn’t demonstrate weakness – it demonstrates courage and strength. Looking back, I wonder how many of my failures would have changed to experiences of empowering interdependence had I done just that. Had I asked for help.

Vulnerability can be scary. Telling people of your inner turmoil without knowing their response can be intimidating. What if they don’t understand you?

What if they do?

A reminder to humanity: When someone opens up to you, listen. Whether or not they are a loved one, a colleague, or even a passerby who you just so happen to stumble upon while they weep: do your best to understand. Do not blame them. Show sympathy or empathy, if you can. Remind them that they are not alone in the pain they face.

And a reminder to those who are conflicted by failure: Be compassionate to yourself. Take moments to reflect, show gratitude, or do something you enjoy. If you’re not at a place to enact self-care, then ask for help. Chances are, you’re not the only one who has deviated from your college major, been unemployed, or lived at home with family as a twenty-something or older.

The original version of this post appeared on Mama Tanap, a blog that focuses on personal health and wellness.