The other day, I came across an envelope labeled “important papers”. It contained things like my birth certificate and my social security card and other things I wouldn’t want to lose. I found an envelope that had a return address of Fort Hunt High School on it, and it was addressed to my parents.
Inside this envelope, I found a form that appeared to be a mid-term report about my progress in the class “A&M History”. This was a class from my Freshman year in High School. As I recall, that stood for Ancient and Medieval History. The report indicated that I was in danger of getting a D in that class. Happily, though I can’t remember the exact grade I got in the class, but I can assure you that I did not fail.
Now, most parents keep records of the victories achieved by their children, and maybe they pass them on to each child when they reach adulthood. But I had to wonder my mother would have kept this record of a near failure, and why she would pass it on to me. Was my Mom applying a bit of warped humor by saving this and giving it to me after I had graduated from college and law school, passed the bar and embarked on my career in the law? If so, I think it explains how I also came to have a bit of warped, zany humor.
Or maybe I fortuitously kept something that I would come across years later when I needed to remember that a failure didn’t always mean the end of things. Maybe I needed this as a reminder that failure is often that bit of cold water we need poured on us to help us revive, refresh, and put some new found energy into looking for a way to overcome our challenges.
I am confident that this is true in my life, and probably in the lives of many others. Why? Because despite this very low grade in an ancient history class, I went on to become a history major in college, and I graduated with high grades. Another item that supports my theory is a paper I squirreled away. It is a paper I wrote for a Greek History class on the concept of the afterlife in ancient Greece. The professor wrote “Excellent, 100 A, I want a copy!”. So apparently one near miss history failure turned into a raging success!
If you do some research, you will find a lot of articles that discuss famous people who first failed before they became enormously successful (Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein and Bill Gates to name a few). The articles tell us that failure is human, that we need to embrace failure. I have come to realize that this is very apt advice, with life experience in general and with your health.
I have also realized that failures that help us have a shot at success can come in different shapes and sizes. In my case, they fall into 3 distinct categories. The first, which is illustrated by my potential D in ancient and medieval history was probably because I simply had not applied myself to the topic at hand. I do not remember myself as being the most motivated person in my high school years when it came to academics.
In fact, I seemed more motivated when it came to musical skills. I was in an award winning high school band, and flirted with the idea of majoring in music. But even when it came to music, I wasn’t applying myself. I did not practice as much as one needed (if at all!) to be a dedicated musician, one who really wanted to make become a career musician. I realized that I would likely starve if I headed down this career path. Instead, I needed to identify my real talents and passions, and apply them in a manner that worked for me. Ultimately, that ended up being in the field of history, and eventually to a career as a lawyer.
Even though I was close to failing history when I was younger, I began to see that history was not just about the study of events, it was people watching on an extended scale. It was interesting to see that over time, the adage “history repeats itself” could be said of a lot of events.
I think I was able to raise my D in history to a passing grade I began to notice how the facts dealt to a particular person or society had a lot to do with how events unfolded. I turned my history failure around because I realized that every thing we do has a human element, and that the study of history came to life by analyzing that human element.
I also realized that each event was caused by people making decisions, or not making decisions, and it was interesting to evaluate not only what happened but what might have happened if one or two facts were changed. I don’t know, but maybe it was this that led me to a career in the law. I was able to help people learn to evaluate the best legal actions based on what facts were present.
My second category of failure occurred when I took risks. Of course, I know there are times when you want to avoid risks if at all possible. For example, I have a implanted device that contains a defibrillator to avoid the risk of going into cardiac arrest – or to at least mitigate that risk. But throughout my life I also accepted some level of risk because I realized I would never move forward in my endeavors if I did not stretch myself to try new things, look for new solutions to problems, or just take a chance on trying something different even if I failed.
For instance, I moved to a city I had never even visited in my life to begin my life as a lawyer. There was some element of risk involved since I knew no one in the area. But I like to think the art of people watching I developed by studying history made me sensitive to people and ultimately made it easy to network and make friends in my new environment. Plus, I learned how to cultivate a clientele in my office so that I could help my agency and my career all in one fell swoop.
The one thing about risks is that at some point you are bound to have one or more failures. I learned just as much, maybe more, from taking a chance and not succeeding. One thing I learned the hard way is you really have to think through all the possible consequences and make sure everyone knows the role they play when your team does something that is a little outside the box (or that is a bit risky). When you think things through and everyone is on the same page, even if you fail, the failed risk provides the data to help you figure out a different and better way to get a desired result.
Another caution is this: when you take a risk, especially on the job, and it results in failure, you have to own up to what went wrong and the role you played. Too many people try to brush aside what happened without either evaluating the episode or even admitting that their performance, idea, whatever led to the failure. In my experience, any time one tries to hide or shade the truth, one lives to regret that decision. I guess the point would be that taking risks is not a bad idea as long as you act with honesty and accountability. I can tell you from personal experience that it is not easy to own up to a failure or mistake, but I always figured that it is preferable to living a lie.
My third category of failure is the one that features my current failure of the heart, I believe it was caused by attempting to take career success to an extreme. I was proud of my achievements on the job, and I think it is normal and appropriate to have pride in what you do in the 9 to 5 arena. Where I began to fail is when the achievements became more important than my body and my health needs. By this I mean my need for sleep; my need to have an escape from the work grind in things like a hobby, or books, or creative writing; and my need to interact more with friends and family rather than just interacting with employees and a computer screen.
In other blog posts I have referred to this as balance, or a need to find stability in one’s life. I was not stable, but was always letting my adrenaline run amok in pursuit of the next career achievement. Is it any surprise that my heart eventually failed?
But happily, although my heart may have suffered damage the diagnosis of heart failure also caused me to seek balance by finding new people to interact with who are wise and who have made me see the error of my ways. I now love to read fiction and to indulge my passion for writing. I have had 3 trips abroad since my heart failure was diagnosed, and I have learned a lot about countries other than the United States. I am working with other people who have chronic illnesses to see if we can help each other, and along the way, we have become friends and have had some laughs even though we have serious health issues.
I have become stable enough to take on the risks associated with a clinical trial, and have gained balance from this experience as well. So even out of this health failure, I have snatched hope from the jaws of disaster. I am hopefully turning my life back onto the path of success.
Melanie discovered that she had heart failure in 2013. Since that time, she has been learning how to live with the condition, and how to achieve balance and personal growth.