Failing Towards Success

I based a lot of my early life goals around a misreading of the television show Family Ties. My hero was Alex P. Keaton, played by Michael J. Fox. Alex valued the accumulation of wealth above all, enjoyed making fun of his ex-hippie parents and looked up to Richard Nixon. I didn’t get that he was a conservative caricature. I took everything he said as gospel. I decided that, when I grew up, I’d be a Wall Street trader or a banker or something–anything–to do with money. I was 12.

Years later, as a confused young adult still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I remembered that old goal and decided to give banking a shot. I applied and got a job working at a call center for Bank of America.

That job sucked.

Not because B of A was a horrible employer, but because my mind was ill-equipped for the task. I had a mental block towards all things banking and couldn’t retain anything I learned about it. I flamed out after three weeks. Never even made it out of training.

I thought I was a loser. A chump. Destined to fail at everything.

It was the slap in the face I needed to finally understand something very basic about myself. Something everyone who knew me was already well aware of, but that my inner Alex P. Keaton had long refused to admit: I was a creative person.

I hadn’t just failed at banking, I learned I was never going to be successful at anything that required repetition, facts, memorization, protocols or math. That’s just not how I’m put together, however badly I may wish otherwise.

I understood, finally, that I needed to invent, explore, paraphrase, create and dream.

Within a couple of years I landed on my major in college: Graphic Design. Amazingly, at a time when most of my peers were biting their nails over the possibility that there might not be any opportunities for them after college, I was blessed to get a job in my chosen field a year and half before graduation. Been there ten years now.

The job pays well, good benefits. It’s a 9-to-5’er and I’m an insomniac, so I started using my nights to create even more. I collaborated on a (fully written, but since abandoned) graphic novel with a friend. I started blogging. I created The SuperFogeys and then Monsterplex. I wrote a book. I’m not a rich man, but I’ve done things worth doing and I think greater success is ahead of me.

My fake internet friend Angie Mizzell writes a blog that’s all about redefining success, which I suppose is what got me thinking about this. She was going to be a big time news reporter. Now, she’s a mom. Big change, and one she argues is for the better. I can’t disagree.

Alex P. Keaton would probably make fun of me for being “artsy” (if he were, y’know, real and hadn’t lost everything about four years ago when the real estate bubble burst) and shame me for not caring so much about money. But screw that guy.

I never would have figured out what really mattered to me without without that one, simple, absolutely miserable three week failure. Smart as I thought I was, I had my limits. But knowing those limits? It set me free towards more possibilities than I never would have imagined otherwise.

What about you? Do you have any failures that were key to later success?

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11 comments

  1. It takes a lot of courage to say “this job sucks” and then do something about it. One of my favorite books is The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. In it, she talks about Shadow Artists. At a TV journalist, I was a shadow artist… working “around” the art instead of carving a direct path to the art. Which in my case is still writing, story telling and entertaining an audience. It took me years to accept that TV news wasn’t the path. Enter: ego. There was a lot of things driving me back then… and it wasn’t passion. I’m always happy and encouraged when I hear about people like you who listened to their creativity.

    You’re an awesome fake friend, by the way.

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    1. As are you.

      It can be a scary thing to give up the thing we THINK we’re supposed to have. There’s a lot of security to doing the safe or expected or traditional thing. But that way lies madness if your heart isn’t the engine that gets you there.

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  2. I always thought Alex P. Keaton was a jerk, and that he didn’t get more likeable until much later in the series. I didn’t really get that attached to any of the characters — I respected Alex’s discipline but disliked his goals and attitude.

    Going more towards the point, my failure-success story is an odd one. Getting laid off from my computer programming job in Toronto lead to a chain of events where I went from I.T. to marketing, and discovered that I used both skill sets at once for great effect. It wasn’t that I wasn’t destined for I.T., but the failure was in using I.T. alone when my actual specialty is using a variety of tools and techniques to solve problems.

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  3. Mine was similar to yours, Brock. However, instead of banking, I was going to be a pharmacist. I realized within 1 year of science classes, that I am not cut out for science and all those goes with it. By Biology teacher had a sit-down and was very blunt. “You’re not good at this. Perhaps you chose the wrong career. What do you like to do?” That was a very profound moment. I realized, as you, that I enjoy creating and dreaming. So, went on to graduate w/ a teaching degree in Art and finally admitted that I enjoy graphic design more than anything, and…. I’m good at it. If it wasn’t for that sit-down moment w/ my biology teacher, who knows where I would have ended up.

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    1. David, that’s awesome. I think we all hope someone like that will come along and tell us how it is. If someone had done that with me… well, to be honest, I probably wouldn’t have listened. But I’m glad it happened for you. I’m sure being a pharmacist would pay more, but I doubt you’d be as happy.

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  4. I know this is about failures turning into successes, but I was really glad to read this post because it reminds me of my time at the movie theater. When I worked there, I had the hardest time retaining the information I needed on how to work some of the less-used buttons on the cash register. Even after two years of working there, I had to ask questions about gift cards and such because the order of operations made no sense to me. Again, I know I’m not pointing at the purpose of this post, but I have always looked at that and thought, “I don’t know how I’m ever going to have a well-paying job if I can’t learn a cash register.” I guess some things just aren’t meant to work out for some people. But I guess that’s a good thing in my case because, um…I’m not a theater employee anymore. Thankfully.

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  5. Hey, you have to know what you don’t like to move towards something you like. There really aren’t and “failures” – things may not work out – so you change direction – but you learn things from eery experience. Sounds like you landed on your feet quite nicely….but still considering options – that’s so normal / human.

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