Lessons about failure and success

I am, in many ways, a failure. For example, I am bad at getting a lot done in a day. If I do one big thing, I feel like I’m completely done. I can’t focus on anything else. I can’t seem to figure out when the chicken is cooked through to the inside. Which is why there are those chicken thermometers, I guess, but I don’t have one, and you can’t exactly go around sticking it into every piece of chicken you cook. Isn’t it only for whole chickens? Which leads me to my next item on the list: I don’t know basic stuff. I feel like I have to think twice all the time, because there’s always, always, always a chance I’ll say something completely embarrassing if I don’t.

In many ways, I’m a success. I usually do something I’m proud of every day. I remember to pick up the dry cleaning. I am always friendly, unless someone’s really rude to me. Sometimes I write a beautiful song. My abstract paintings are getting better. They no longer look quite as much like I was saying to myself, “Just put the splotch of red there! It’s daring! That’s what abstract art is! You have to take a risk!”

(image source here)

I could make a longer list of all the things I fail at and all the things I succeed at. Who knows where it’d go. But the truth is, my real definition of success is too big. I mean, success is set up too high. And failure is just not reaching success.

Success is supposed to mean a lot of things. It means different things to different people. To different communities. To different cultures. For me it’s very specific, and I never have it. For my entire life, I’ve struggled with a very narrow definition of success.

It has very particular ingredients:

  1. I have to make it myself. I can’t get it from someone else.
  2. It has to be through something creative I do/did, like writing, songwriting, painting, or making grilled cheese sandwiches.
  3. It has to support itself. So if one of my grilled cheeses gets famous, the fame has to enable me to open a lunch shop, which will also be famous.
  4. It has to involve a lot of outside appreciation. Not necessarily enormous fame, but people have to recognize how good those sandwiches are, and write about them in the New York Times.

It’s a little embarrassing, writing that out. Not that the goals aren’t admirable, but because obtaining those things shouldn’t define my life. And the absence of those things shouldn’t count as failure.

But that’s the thing, success and failure always come as a set. And even if you don’t actively mess things up, if you don’t actively achieve other things, it can still feel like failing. Which is annoying. Because I might feel like a failure for years under this model. Or forever. There’s no saying when the lunch shop scout will come around again.

My ideas about success and failure get in my way all the time. I trip over them. I’ll be really happy about something that just happened. Like the sunset on the Hudson, the thought of getting a kitten, or a free pastrami giveaway at the local Jewish deli (if that happened I would be really happy), and then I’ll remember that I haven’t done anything productive recently that’s working towards my goals, and the happiness will deflate a little.

My work ethic is surprisingly overdeveloped for someone who slept until ten almost every morning of her childhood (homeschooling is amazing). I get mad when I catch myself taking breaks.

I wish I would learn this:

Success is in the in between, too. In savoring things. Success isn’t always at the end, and it’s not always bigger than everything else that’s going on. It’s NOT thinking about work. It’s NOT thinking about the future, even, for a while.

Sometimes I understand, briefly. Like when I met my fiancé. He is a huge success for me. And I recognized it almost immediately. Falling in love with him was by far the most important thing in my life and I knew it. I put down everything I was studying and working on and practicing for, and danced around his apartment to “Fire Burning” while he was out. And then I picked up everything again and worked on it, but the whole time, I felt as though none of that mattered so much, because I’d already succeeded.

That’s the real secret about success. It’s always already there.

Maybe I’ll make a ton of money one day, off of my abstract art. But even if I don’t, I’d like to enjoy the pieces I hang on my wall, and be proud of that accomplishment. And I’d like to be eating one of those extremely successful grilled cheese sandwiches as I sit there.

(click here for image source)

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What makes you feel successful?

Un-roast: Let me try Emily’s suggestion. Today I’m grateful for my ability to sometimes truly appreciate my own unique beauty. And for my capacity for sudden pure joy. Like when a room is flooded with sunlight. That makes me feel happy automatically.

Yesterday’s un-roasts:

Jennie: today i love my shoulders. i’ve been doing my chaturanga push-ups in yoga class, and they look strong and wide.

Emily: this is kind of a meta-unroast. I like that I am confident in myself and not that worried about my flaws. it goes back and forth for sure, but right now I am on a confident streak and when I notice things about myself that are not quite right, i shrug it off pretty easily. it’s nice to be able to do for now, cause it’s not always like that.

Justine: With your mention about un-roasting other aspects of ourselves, my un-roast of the day is my cooking. Ever since I lost my job I’ve been cooking all the time and now it’s like second nature. I feel like I can finally cook (and bake!) for real, the way my mom always has, and that makes me proud—and I don’t think it makes me any less a feminist, quite the contrary in fact!

I’m with you! I love cooking and it makes me feel womanly and strong! Anyway, I’ve always thought feminism is supposed to mean that women get to pick what they want to do. So good for you!

Elizabeth: Today I love that I am being more honest/blunt/direct while still being kind and respectful. It’s working out well and I feel so much stronger.

Wei-Wei: Today, I love my feet. I noticed how annoyingly wide they look in flats (squidge, squidge, squidge) but then again, doesn’t that mean I can walk more steadily? More surface area? Besides, a larger base means steadier dancing. Sorry I’ve been mentioning dancing so much, but I guess that’s something else I love about myself.

Mention whatever you want, girl! <3

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P.S. Let me just say that I love how many of you have told me not to wear a bra under my wedding dress. That is something that wouldn’t have even occurred to me otherwise, and now I feel kind of empowered about it. Like I’m going to march into that fitting, head held high, and inform everyone that I’ll do what I like with my breasts, and it’s none of their business. It’s like the sixties or something.


Kate on June 30th 2010 in life, new york, perfection

14 Responses to “Lessons about failure and success”

  1. Christine (Blisschick) Reed responded on 30 Jun 2010 at 12:01 pm #

    Good stuff.

    Thank you for writing out that success definition — it totally matches my own. I have such a hard time seeing the in-between-ness of success.

    Much to think about here.


  2. Virginia responded on 30 Jun 2010 at 12:23 pm #

    I swear to God, I am going to open an Etsy store of needlepoint pillows featuring only lines from your blog posts. I just hafta learn to needlepoint and run an Etsy store first.

    In the meantime, I am printing out the part about success being in the in between times, and putting it on the bulletin board above my desk. Because oh boy, do I forget that!

    Un-Roast: I like that my arm hair is back. I’ve had to have it waxed off at Beauty U a few times now, so someone can get an arm waxing signature and I feel so completely mole-rat-naked without it. Now that it’s summer and my arms are getting a bit more golden, the hair gets kind of golden too, and I think the whole effect is very pretty in a cool surfer girl way.

  3. Natalie responded on 30 Jun 2010 at 12:54 pm #

    If you haven’t already, you should totally read “The Tao of Pooh” by Benjamin Hoff.

    As a fellow religion major, I too share a love of the deeply philosophical arguments filled with “zingers” and all sorts of abstract theological guesses and assertions, but this book is Joy. I mean it. And (I’m not THAT embarrassed to say this) has helped me A LOT with feeling okay with simply Being. And it makes me laugh out loud…a lot.

  4. Cindy responded on 30 Jun 2010 at 12:59 pm #

    for me, success, is ending my day, head on pillow..deep sigh, knowing…just knowing that i gave my day my all.

    That I gave my kids, my spouse, my friends, my job, and ME…my very best.

    I love that feeling. I sleep well.
    all we really have is this day and that’s why it’s called the “present” right?

    I used to so worry about not having a career, or a profession, or a degree…all those tangible things, that tell you and the world “you’ve made it’.

    But I had to fight a bad first and second marriage. I had to recover…by then I was a mom, so I had to keep that good job I still have…

    I have overcome so many hurdles and re-written a future that was certainly bleek at best. I raise my children present, and as honestly as I can.

    and if that is all I amount to??? than I will have succeeded because this is no easy feat!

    and that is my unroast for today! Plus I have this shirt and a belt on that I totally am rockin! haha

    much love to you kate and wear your dress bra-less. I did. It had this killer back that I wanted to show off minus a strap!


  5. Jamie responded on 30 Jun 2010 at 2:07 pm #

    Right now I’m reading “The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin – blog post coming soon about it – and she feels the same need for recognition of her successes. She calls it “gold stars”. I SO identify with what both of you have written about this feeling. It was the hardest part of being done with college for me…I felt like a failure because I wasn’t constantly getting back “A” papers!

    I love your blog and your thoughtful take on the world. PLUS you make me laugh : )

    And I’m glad I’m not the only one who advocated going braless.

  6. Kate responded on 30 Jun 2010 at 2:24 pm #

    Thanks! I want to read it.

  7. Erika @ Health and Happiness in LA responded on 30 Jun 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    I’ve definitely been feeling like a failure lately. I feel like a failure when I gain weight, which I recently did. And my 5-year relationship recently ended (not my choice), and that made me feel like a failure, too. I guess what makes me feel like a success is that I haven’t given up. I’m still getting up and living my life and daring to believe that it will be good again.

  8. Elizabeth responded on 01 Jul 2010 at 12:36 am #

    What makes me feel the most successfull today is seeing my 5 and 8-year-old daughters giggle, explore, and play well together. Nothing could beat that for me today. =-)

  9. Wei-Wei responded on 01 Jul 2010 at 11:48 am #

    What makes me feel successful… I don’t know. I’ve read “7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens” and one of the habits was to have a principle or concept as your “center”. Don’t center your life around a hobby, a person, a job, or a thing, or not even yourself. Work to realise a principle like honesty, kindness, or happiness. I still feel like I’m just working for other people’s happiness and not for me. I just don’t know what it means to be happy for myself… happiness and success might be different things but my mind just lumps them together. If I’m successful, I’ll be happy, right? And when I mean successful I don’t want to mean material successes like awards, or projects, etc. I want to be successful within myself and… well, I don’t quite know how to explain it, actually. :S

    Today, I feel good about my mouth. It has nicely shaped, thick lips, and even though there’s a sore on the inside of my lower lip that prevents me from eating much, I feel good because that makes me realise just how important my mouth is, for eating, for talking, and of course for laughing.


  10. McKella responded on 02 Jul 2010 at 9:46 pm #

    I wish I could have gone braless under my wedding dress. I had to wear an extra padded bra in a bigger size just to fill it out! Two bras…not comfy.

  11. rebekah (clarity in creation.) responded on 05 Jul 2010 at 8:01 am #

    hey girl! i don’t think i’ve commented before but i totally love your un-roast movement.

    my un-roast? i am falling in love with my torso. it’s always been my “trouble zone,” but i’m realizing it’s because i never let it develop how it was naturally meant to be. i am athletic, muscular, and have a strong body – i will never have a waif’s torso. and i am proud! my stomach looks like it supports me to run half-marathons, and i’m not ashamed of that anymore. it’s mine, and it’s amazing in it’s own right.

  12. meerkat responded on 17 Jul 2010 at 9:52 am #

    My definition of success is something like “better than I can do.” If I can do it, it is easy and does not count.

  13. Eat the Damn Cake » Ode to the grilled cheese responded on 22 Feb 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    [...] other posts involving grilled cheese, check out my post about 20-somethings and the one called “lessons about failure and success” (apparently grilled cheeses inspire existential [...]

  14. Luyi responded on 22 Feb 2011 at 6:51 pm #

    This piece of writing is absolutely incredibly amazing. It is heartfelt and insightful at the same time. I’ve come back to it so many times since you first posted it, and I’ve only come to appreciate it more and more. Thank you for sharing.