So this past Saturday, the ninth of May, I got to see my younger brother graduate from college. He didn't know until he went to pick up his cap and gown that his final semester's grades had bumped him up from cum laude to magna cum laude, so my mother cried happy tears when that announcement was made along with his name.
Today's blog post is what I'd like to tell him, and everyone else who's graduating or starting something big in their lives, in the form of an open letter. It's also what I'd say if I were asked to make a graduation speech somewhere. Which I haven't, but who knows what a year may bring? Next year maybe some of you will be hearing me express a few of these sentiments in person. We'll see.
In any case:
Congratulations. You're going to fail.
No, you didn't hear me wrong. You're going to fail. You're going to fall on your face, bloody your nose, bruise your chin, black your eyes, scrape the heck out of your elbows and your knees and every other part of you. You're going to eat pavement, often spectacularly, and usually in front of the people you most wanted to impress. There's just no way around it. You are going to fail.
Not what you expected to hear on your special day, is it? Our culture today is focused so absolutely on success. We laud and lionize those who succeed, and pour scorn on those who fail. Children are taught in school that everyone should always be a winner. Phrases like "Failure is not an option" permeate our thinking. Why don't we take a few more cues from the Mythbusters? Not by blowing something up, though that's awesome in its own right, but by recognizing that failure is always an option. And sometimes it's going to be the option that happens to us.
What we don't see, and what we need to see, is that failure is always an option, but that life doesn't end there. You're going to fail at something, graduates, and it's going to hurt. It's going to feel about as rotten as anything can. You're going to feel like it's all-encompassing, the total end of the world, and you might even wish it was. But guess what? It's not. It pretty much never is.
You see, the funny thing about life is that it has a way of going on. No matter what we do or we don't do, what we get or we don't get, what we wish or we don't wish, life goes on. Maybe that grad program you really wanted turned you down. Maybe that big project at work fell to pieces on you. Maybe your boyfriend or girlfriend dumped you. Maybe you dumped them, and did it all wrong and hurt them when you never meant to. Congratulations. You're a human being, and failure is always an option.
I know what you're thinking, at least some of you. You're thinking, "What does she know about failure? Sitting at her computer, typing these pretty little phrases?" I'll tell you what I know about failure. Throughout my entire college experience, I thought I was going to be an elementary school teacher. I got my bachelor's degree and went straight into a compressed program with one of my college's linked grad schools, to get my master's and my teaching certification all at once. Life was great! This couldn't fail!
Six months later, I was burned out like you wouldn't believe. My classroom teaching experience was overwhelming me, I was failing most of my master's classes, and my stress levels were through the roof. Finally, the director of the program and my mentor teacher called me into a session where they outlined my choices. Either I agreed to a two-week bout of intensive remediation (and I could tell by their voices they didn't think it would do much good), or I would have to leave the program. I chose option B. I flunked out of graduate school, abandoned the only career I'd ever considered, and ended up with huge debt for no reason.
Ladies and gentlemen, I failed, and that failure hurt. It hurt a lot. It was one of the most horrible things that has ever happened to me. But it also brought me to where I am today, because after I spent about a day and a half having my inevitable emotional reaction to that failure, I took stock and decided that I'd failed at one thing. That meant it was time to try something new.
In my case, that was taking a job as an administrative assistant, while developing myself as a novelist and writer of short stories on the side. And while I haven't spectacularly succeeded with my writing as yet, I am self-sufficient monetarily, and have been since I left that graduate program. That, ladies and gentlemen, is a success. Yes, my job drives me up the wall sometimes, but it supports me and the various creatures who share my life, and if I do say so myself, I do it well. I'd occasionally like to slap some sense into my coworkers, but who wouldn't?
Of course, the success I have now isn't the success I once thought I'd have. But the person I've become, walking this road, wouldn't want the success I thought I wanted way back when. That's another thing they don't teach you in school, is that your definitions of success and failure are going to change over the next few years, and onward through your lives. Sometimes radically. And sometimes a failure is really just opening the door for a success you never dreamed would come your way.
But when you're lying flat on your back in the dust, you don't want to hear peppy platitudes. You failed. You're hurt. You're humiliated. You want to scream and cry, throw things and swear, think bitter thoughts about what you coulda, woulda, shoulda. Go ahead. Do it. It's natural, and often it's needed. But after you've been lying there for a while, you're going to be faced with the most human choice of all. You can stay where you are, flat on the ground with your little white flag. Or you can pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.
Make no mistake, ladies and gentlemen, getting back up is not easy. It's probably the hardest thing you'll ever do. After all, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over but expecting a different result. So it's very easy to think that standing back up will just make you a target for failure again. And, of course, it will. Failure is always an option.
But then again, so is success.
And sometimes awesome explosions.