Sometimes gifts come well disguised. In my case, the greatest gift I ever received certainly was. It came to me about eight years ago. It wasn’t something tangible, it wasn’t expected and it certainly wasn’t asked for.
My greatest gift was failure.
For the first several decades of my life, one would have called me “successful.” Not Bill Gates or Dalai Lama successful, but I did pretty well for myself. With little effort, I got good grades in school. At work, I was liked and respected by bosses and colleagues. Professionally, I moved up the ladder as one expected to do. And, despite those who said it would never work out, I headed off to Paris, acquired working papers (as an American, not so simple a task), found a good job, and eventually opened up my own consultancy. I traveled widely and explored the world with dear friends. Along the way, I had my share of problems and heartaches, but I led a good and “successful” lifestyle.
Then I moved from Paris to Hamburg, Germany to be with my then-boyfriend (now husband).
The first objective was to learn German. How hard could it be? I had already mastered French. As I sat in my first week of German class, I was thrown back to third grade. I thought of a boy named David G. Why David? Because David was, without a doubt, the stupidest kid in the class, incapable of understanding even the simplest lessons. Thick as a post; a few French fries shy of a Happy Meal. Dumb. I thought of David because in German class, for the first time in my life, I was the David. The stupidest kid in the class. And, therein lay the first of my failures.
But, I had worked for mostly international companies anyway, and the lingua franca was always English. I could perhaps do without excelling in German. So, I continued on toward the real goal: finding a job. I quickly discovered that what had been some of my most valued, unique assets in the U.S. and France, i.e., flexibility, resourcefulness, and broad and varied skill sets were viewed with less than high regard and, sometimes, even suspicion. On top of that, having inched my way just passed forty, I was considered “old.” I persevered through a year and a half of rejection before I gave up. I was a failure professionally.
After a hard look at my situation—and going slightly mad from too much idle time—I pulled myself up by my sagging self-esteem and decided I’d try volunteering. I researched. I explored. Eventually I found a cause in which I could sink my teeth with enthusiasm. I crafted a letter offering any number of skills: I could write their English website, help put together leaflets or brochures, I would’ve been happy stuffing envelopes or licking stamps. I still have a copy of the rejection letter I received. I couldn’t even give away my skills.
The final straw came when my gynecologist confirmed that I had entered early peri-menopause. I had finally found the man with whom I wanted to have children, and I could do nothing but watch as part of the dream slipped away. Frankly, problems with bringing a child to term had been suspected for years and at that point, I was no spring chicken. But, to believe something and to know something are two very different things. I added failure as woman, wife, and a daughter-in-law to my growing list.
These are merely a taste of the many failures I faced during those years. I chose these to illustrate why, in my mind, I became the biggest failure I knew. It all made for the most difficult, painful period of my life. Everything familiar, any remnants of my identity, and all that I thought I was, was gone. Robbed. Vanquished. Everything that I was proud of became irrelevant. I never imagined that I was capable of falling into such a deep, dark hole of despair and depression.
And, after a time, it was strangely liberating.
Because, once I was stripped of what I believed myself to be, when I was faced with only myself without all the “trimmings” of job or profession or smartness or even likability, I suddenly saw what was important. And I could then begin to fill my life with things that had real meaning to me—none which has anything to do with learning German, or being the smartest or the most clever, or having a successful consultancy. I redefined, in my terms, what being a successful woman and wife means. And I’m now exploring so many wondrous things that had been shrouded behind fear of failure.
I don’t suggest that anyone throw him- or herself into situations doomed for failure. However, perhaps give pause to the fear of it the next time it’s dropped on your doorstep. It’s not the failure part that poisons; it’s the fear. The failure can be a gift that when opened can bring all sorts of magic to life.