Failure: The Other F-Word

A few days ago, I received an invitation to the college graduation of a kid I used to nanny. I’ve watched Max for the last year on Facebook. Vicariously experienced his amazing three-month stint in Prague. Examined his dark and fanatic art. Watched him fall in love with a beautiful European. And now, his graduation from college. There were two emotions that came from this: feeling my age and crushing failure.

There’s nothing like seeing the kid you used to babysit when they were two, graduate from college. You sit there peering into familiar eyes wondering where the time went. You remember them as picky toddlers. The potty training nightmare that became a miracle of diaperless days. Teaching them to swing. Throw your legs out and pull them back! You got it!! Yay!

Yep.

Old.

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I will be celebrating my 40th birthday the weekend before the graduation party. 4. 0.

Where has the time gone?

I expected to feel old. That’s a given. The second emotion blindsided me.

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I found myself lying awake at 3 a.m. staring at the nightlight of the solar system. Red and blue plants glowing on the white popcorn of the ceiling. My mind raced through hypothetical conversations I might engage in at said party.

Them: Cyndi! It’s been so long. What are you doing these days?

Me: It’s been forever. Right now, I stay home with my son and write when I can. Mostly when he’s napping.

Them: You get to stay home with him. That’s so good. But you said right now. Are you planning on going back to work when he starts school?

Me: Yeah.

Them: Anything in particular?

Me: Well, I got my master’s in Library science, but-

Them: A librarian! That’s great. Public or academic?

Me: Well, I did my concentration in archival studies, but jobs are hard to come by.

Them: Why’s that?

Me: The field’s flooded with applicants, so competition’s fierce. I’m trying to steer more towards writing.

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Penning this now, with the light of the sun and the song of birds floating through the window, it doesn’t seem so bad. But at 3 a.m., it was unbearable. I felt like such a failure. Forty years old, with an advanced degree, and no career. It’s not like I’m on leave to raise my son. I was never able to find a job in the library field after graduation.

I go back and forth between elation that I didn’t get a library position and the sensation of being an utter loser. Staying home has allowed me the time to write, which makes me truly happy. There’s this glow that settles in your chest and slowly spreads to your extremities after a productive writing session. For runners, I akin it to a runner’s high. To those who gambles, it’s a big win. Alcoholics, it’s the first drink of the day.

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Getting in a good writing session is akin to scaling Mt. Everest. It’s amazing. And for that, I am truly grateful I haven’t found a library or archival job. If I had, I would spend my days working to come home and relax on the couch until bedtime. Maybe I’d read for a bit before shutting off the light and closing my eyes. But writing probably wouldn’t have been part of the routine.

Then there are other days when the bitterness of my unused degree seeps into my mouth, making me want to retch. This bitterness usually arrives right before I spend time with people I haven’t seen in a while, or when someone attempts to joke with me about my degree.

Them: Where are all your books?

Me: In boxes. We need to get some bookshelves.

Them: No bookshelves? But you’re a librarian. *wry smile*

Me: *painful chuckle* Am I?

Them: Sure. You have the degree. I would think getting bookshelves would be a priority.

Me: I’m like a doctor with a revoked medical license. I’ve got the training, but I’m not seeing patients.

Or when they offer advice on how I can find a job.

Them: How about interning?

Me: Sure. I did about five internships in college.

Them: What about volunteering?

Me: Volunteering doesn’t pay that great.

Them: It might get your foot in the door. Beggars can’t be choosers.

At this point in the conversation, I smile into my drink before walking in another direction, any direction. I’d rather walk into a wall repeatedly than talk to this pretentious asshole with all the answers.

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We, as a society, entertain a sense of what success is. Success is making money, owning a home, a car, having a closet full of clothes, vacationing in exotic locales. Other, more noble souls, or at least people who pretend to be noble, will tell you success is having your family close, having good friends, and loving what you do. I do like the idealism of the noble soul, their logic, and intense optimism. But it’s so hard to get there when so much of who we are is wrapped in what we do for a living.

The idea that the quality of a person is the sum of their accomplishments is absurd. Sure, accomplishing a task or goals feels good. Shit, it feels great, especially if we worked our asses off for it. But then when we don’t make our goals, finish a task, or win the prize, we view ourselves as failures.

Reading about how to deal with failure has led me to some wonderful revelations. We need to value who we are as people, not what we do. Are you a good person? Are you there for your friends and family when they need you? Honest? Hardworking? Neighborly? Punctual? Think about the values you hold dear. Be open to the positivity other’s give you. When someone pays you a compliment, accept it. Don’t just say thank you. Take that in. That’s what compliments are for.

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At first, this new attitude towards yourself will be foreign, especially if you’ve been wallowing in the failure zone. I think of it as remodeling your home. Room by room, you gut the old, tired fixtures, the Pepto-pink toilet, the country geese wallpaper, the parkette flooring, and methodically you replace them with updated accent walls, toilet with heated seat, reclaimed hardwood flooring. It’s the same with restructuring the view you have of yourself. It takes time. You must work at it, and it ain’t easy. Every time the crushing weight of your own self-hate hits you, remember something nice you did for another person. Think about the time you stood up to someone for something you believe in. Think about the people who love you. They see the good in you. You should too.

And above all, remember, beyond death, everything is temporary. You may not be where you want to be now, but there will be other opportunities. When they come around, grab them by the short and curlies and hang on for dear life.

I’m still not sure if I’m going to the graduation party. The thought of seeing all those old faces again makes me freak out, and the fail blanket tucks itself around me again. I need to remind myself that staying home with my son is not a sign of failure. I get to be on the front lines of all his first. First words, first skinned knee, first successful pee-pee on the big boy potty. Not getting hired to the job I wanted isn’t the end of the world. I don’t need to have a spectacular career to be a success. Success comes in all shapes and sizes.

We are good people, and we deserve to be loved, especially by ourselves.

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Cynthia Varady

Cynthia Varady

Cynthia Varady is an award-winning freelance writer and co-owner of the book review website, DuelingLibrarians.net. She currently resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband and son. Cynthia has her BA in English Literature from Sonoma State University, and her Masters in Library and Information Science from San Jose State University. Occasionally, Cynthia can be found voicing characters in casual video games, including Stella in the Aveyond series. She is presently working on a young adult fantasy novel.

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