The good thing about growing up, I think, is that we become more and more accustomed to failure than we were during our pubescent or childhood. Just hours ago, for example. I was in a small room with 4 others; 2 of whom could literally decide the fate of my professional career.
Yes, I was in a meeting. It’s a very laughable situation where I had to present a proposal I’ve been meticulously preparing for weeks to a member of the board, only to have this person point out every single mistake I’ve made, even denoting that “I haven’t done a thing worth mentioning” in regards to the proposal.
The meeting itself was cut short, as you might have predicted. The end result? A humiliating rejection from the board member, and some dissatisfying remarks I will probably carry with me for the rest of my professional career. This includes unpleasant vocabularies such as “worthless”, “mistaken”, “unneeded”, etc.
I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel disappointed. As a matter of fact, I knew I could get a much better outcome than just a plain rejection. I knew for sure that I’ve already prepared all I could, and even rehearsed the presentation because that’s just how paranoid I can be.
But still, this thing called “failure” stalks from outside the window; bidding its time until it finds an opening to creep in. And despite your best efforts to prevent it from happening, it always catches you off-guard.
When I was little, “failure” used to be so frightening. I recall my mother, being the perfectionist that she is, would scold me whenever I fail to meet her expectations. This used to include getting straight A’s with my report cards, securing a spot in the class’ top 10 students, and the likes.
Of course, no matter how much I tried to avoid it, failure always haunted me from the very beginning. There would always be a surprise test at school, and I would be caught off-guard because I didn’t study the night before, for example. During these times, I would get a devastating score on my test, and my mother would be very disappointed because I couldn’t get a perfect score.
It’s funny how the majority of my life was defined by numbers. My mother applied the same standards during my junior high and high school years, and I used to be very obedient to her. Part of me was scared of her because you would not want to be there when my mother is angry. Another part of me, however, was developing a fear of failure itself.
This continued into my university years when “success” or “failure” did not always mean getting a good score on your tests anymore. There were suddenly more dimensions to measure, like how active you are with the campus activities, and if you joined the council, took on a part-time job, etc. Whereas “failure” had always been represented by bad scores on your test sheets, all of a sudden it wasn’t as easy to define something as a “success” or “failure” anymore.
It was during my internship, however, when I finally realized how devastating an “adult’s failure” could really be.
Back then, just like earlier, I was presenting my proposal to a member of the board. I don’t recall much about the actual meeting, seeing how it happened more than 5 years ago, but I do remember the reaction this board member gave when I finished my presentation.
He looked at me, and then at the projected screen on the whiteboard, and then back at me again. He gave me several seconds of silence, before slamming the desk in anger and told me “what a complete waste of time” my presentation was, and whatever I was doing was “not worth his time”. As the icing on the cake, he even went as far as to call the whole project “a garbage”, before storming outside the room in a rage.
Now, if you could imagine a younger version of myself, flabbergasted by the sudden barrage of attacks, gaping my mouth like a suffocating goldfish, then your imagination is pretty accurate. I remember standing still while the other participants of the meeting left the room one by one, and eventually, I was left alone with my laptop in the room, still projecting the same screen on the whiteboard.
My immediate reaction was that I wanted to cry.
Following that, I was angry.
Not at the member of the board, because he certainly had every right to criticize a project he’s supervising. Not at the meeting participants for not sticking up for me even though they have all approved of my proposal beforehand. I was angry because I knew I could have done better, and I had failed myself miserably.
This self-loathe and disappointment was perhaps the very thing that fueled my hard work following that crushing defeat. I remember taking home my proposal, cried my heart out because I felt so defeated and weak, and then started questioning myself if I could actually draft a better proposal than the one I just presented.
If I could prove him wrong.
That I wasn’t a complete waste of time. That I was worth his time. That I was not a garbage.
As far as a wake-up call goes, that had been the harshest for me.
In retrospect, I’ve come to terms with even more failures in my life following that one day during my internship. During my time in this particular startup company, I’ve had my shares of blunders and failures just the same: I prepared the wrong file for a meeting, misspoke a crucial information to a client, compiled the wrong numbers for a management report… think about any kind of corporate mistakes, and chances are, I’ve already experienced it.
So it might come as no surprise if I told you that during the meeting earlier, I could already predict the bleak end after the first 15 minutes. We didn’t have much time, after all. An allotted time of 1 hour flies so quickly when we only spent the first 15 minutes arguing about a certain point in the presentation.
It felt almost like a déjà vu, even. You know, being yelled at and being called “useless”. Or the part when this board member told me that my month-long effort was “like you’ve only pulled an all-nighter to finish a high school assignment.” Or the part when he said that I “lack the competence to uphold the standards.”
I’ve faced enough failures in my life to not be so easily deterred from yet another one.
…or at least, that was what I thought.
I couldn’t lie to myself. I was devastated.
And no matter how badly I wanted to redeem myself in future meetings—to prove him wrong—I knew I’ve already lost the chance. There would be no future meetings, no future projects. The proposal was rejected, and I was already registered in this person’s figurative list of undesired people in his professional environment.
I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t concerned the slightest. Quite the opposite, I was distraught. And I would probably still am if I hadn’t talked to my mother about it.
Yes, my mother. The very person who detests failure more than anything.
“I won’t sugarcoat things,” I told my mother earlier this evening. “The meeting was a total mess. I’ve failed.”
I half-expected my mother to hit me in a sudden fit of rage, but this was one of that rare occasion when my mother was eerily calm. If anything, seeing her motionless on the side of the bed was more frightening than ever. I knew how much she hates failure, and I knew how much she hates seeing her children—the very fruits of her genes—fail.
But alas, I was mistaken. She did not throw a tantrum because of this. She also didn’t go to the kitchen and pull out a steel ladle to hit me with, like she used to do in the past. She just sat there, eyeing my movement from the borders of the book she was reading, and let out a long sigh.
“Then maybe it’s for the best,” she said.
“What do you mean?” I was startled, not expecting the kind of treatment she gave me.
“You’ve experienced enough failures,” she continued. “I believe you have the strength to pick yourself up and do better next time. And even then, I stand by my point. It might have been for the best. Who knows? Maybe you were supposed to handle a different project altogether.”
And then she proceeded to return to enjoying the book she was reading. Meanwhile, I was already deep in my filthy puddle of contemplation, trying to digest everything that happened to be today. During the meeting, I felt like I was squashed with walls from all directions, preventing me from breathing. When my mother dismissed my failure so easily without so much as a stern yelling, I could feel the walls crumbling down.
But maybe she’s right.
Sure, this failure reminds me so much of the one I’ve experienced during my internship. My very worth as a professional was besmirched, and I was labeled as being incompetent because this one person refused to listen to my presentation to the very end, and instead developed a nasty prejudice against the whole proposal. The two incidents are too similar I could already start putting the pieces together.
But unlike that many years ago, I didn’t cry this time.
Sure, I was super disappointed, but I immediately knew what I had to do, albeit after a few ranting sessions to some of my friends. I knew this wasn’t the end of the world, and that if I failed one project, I could simply try harder for the next one. I knew that I couldn’t prove this one guy that he’s wrong about me, but I could prove myself that I was right about me having some worth by working harder towards the next project, couldn’t I?
There’s this very memorable scene in Disney’s animated movie “Lion King” when Rafiki the monkey sage told Simba: “The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it or learn from it.”
I think the very same principle can be applied to failures. It can hurt, but we can either run from it or learn from it. And no matter how hard the circumstances in the future, should I find myself treading around the pits of future failures, I hope I will always have enough courage to choose the latter.
For that purpose, I am going to write myself a reminder.
But you guys can read this too—since anyone deserves to read this aloud to themselves.
So read the following, whenever you’re feeling sad, unwanted, unloved, worthless, discouraged, alienated, excluded, lost, weak, vulnerable, and exposed. Go find a mirror, read the following excerpt aloud, and I hope you will bust a hole big enough for not only failure to creep in, but also hope.
Know this: you are amazing.
You are the bravest person you will ever know. And you are wonderful the way you are, because no matter how dark, hopeless, and bleak the situations are, you will keep on fighting. And no amount of failures will derail you from your path.
I know that sometimes, hope is difficult to find. Even more so during the times of adversity. I know you feel alone and tired. I know you seek comfort and support, and sometimes nobody seems to hear you out. You reach out to find others who might be able to help you, and you might find no one. I know you feel like you’ve fallen for thousands of times and you’ve started hurting inside.
But know this: you are very strong.
And I know it feels hopeless, but you will get up and fight again. You will risk however many times you need to fall, and still, you will get up again. You will never run away. You will go out there, do your very best, and prove that you’re worth more than everything. You will prove that you’re worth fighting for.
You will prove that you’re not a failure.
Someday, you will look back on this day, and think to yourself about how silly it was to worry too much. Everything will work out perfectly in the end. Everything will be okay. And more than anything, you would be glad that you didn’t give up the good fight. Not today, not tomorrow, not the day after. You’d be glad you kept on fighting. You’d be glad you kept on believing.
And you will hear a faint whisper from your heart that says:
“I am strong. I can do this.”
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