Overcoming the F-Word: Fight or Flight

I wrote this last year for the now defunct Skirt! Magazine’s Annual Challenge Issue. How ironic that the submission, an essay about failure, was rejected, but those are the breaks. No need to leave it sitting in my inbox.

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Let’s talk about the F-word. Not that one…but failure. It’s inevitable, and since it’s likely to happen to us all atleast once, we might as well learn to cope. In Langston Hughes poem, “Harlem,” he writes, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Well, what happens when fail at the one thing you think you’re pretty good at?

I didn’t encounter failure as the beast it really is until college. I haven’t succeeded at everything I tried my hand at though. Small brushes with failure came early on in childhood. When I was 14, I told my 8th grade Algebra teacher to give up teaching me because I hated math and would never be good at it. I’d long accepted that defeat with every “C” and borderline “D” test paper he returned.

Later in high school, I tried out for the pom pon squad. I’d never done competitive dance, but I figured, how hard could it be? I can dance for sure, so it should be a piece of cake. After five days of grueling three-hour practices, I reluctantly auditioned. I knew then it was a vast difference between someone who could just dance (me) and a choreographed dancer (them), but I was no quitter. After the second 8-count of my audition, I went blank and nstinctively broke into a freestyle inspired by break dancing and random movements to the beat. The judges did everything possible to mask their horrified expressions. When I exited the gym, you could hear a pin drop. I can’t remember if I even stayed for the final team list to be posted. Again, I’d accepted failure. It was fun experience though.

Fast forward five years later to the summer entering my junior year of college. I’d finally found what made me happy and it didn’t involve numbers or pom pons. Writing was my true love. I’d earned a scholarship and a first place feature story at a distinguished journalism camp as proof of my writing talents. I landed a 12-week internship at my hometown’s newspaper after a recommendation from a big-wig who’d seen my writing. I couldn’t wait to begin reporting in week 7 to get my hands dirty and show my talent. In many of our group sessions with the editor-in-chief, I stood out, even receiving praise for a short news assignment we were given.

The seasoned reporters told us about “Error Court,” that dreaded place no reporter ever wanted to go. One visit meant a meeting with the editor-in-chief to explain your carelessness. A second visit could result in probation, possibly termination. That wasn’t an option for me.

The first day of reporting, a fellow intern, Karen, dashed from the office in tears after having her first story to shreds by our editor. “He was just horrible!” she said as she obscurely wiped away tears in the break room. “I hope you have better luck than me.”

My first session with that same editor wasn’t bad at all. In fact, he complimented my writing style and gave me a two-page spread complete with artwork for my second week assignment. Maybe Karen had the wrong guy.

All the while working on weekly assignments, every intern had to complete a section of an annual “Around Town” insert. My job was to write about a particular suburb and list all its amenities. I researched online, and made sure to be a good little journalist, calling the officials’ offices to fact-check. The special section went to press on a Saturday night to be included in Sunday’s edition.

Monday morning I walked in the newsroom to find the editor-in-chief and managing editor seated in a meeting room directly across from my desk. From behind the tinted glass, their facial expressions looked anywhere from angry to puzzled. I was called in. The section of the insert I worked so hard on was laying on the table covered in a million red marks, straight from the suburb-city mayor’s email. Apparently, the person whom confirmed the accuracy of the city website was about as reputable as a Wikipedia page. The story was printed with several  content errors. There was no escaping the flub, nor the embarrassment.

I pleaded my case, but the damage had already been done. The employee at the city office wasn’t to blame; I was. I should have checked with other sources, they said. Luckily, it was the last week of the internship; otherwise, I’d have been suspended. In those last days, interns and reporters alike gave me looks of shame, sympathy and even amusement. I’d gone from a “talented” intern to the ultimate failure and embarrassment to the publication.

I took that failure so personally. It was clear that I wasn’t cut out for journalism, and I was heartbroken. Surprisingly, before my departure, my departmetn editor and the managing editor both counseled me. Each said the same thing: Mistakes happen. You’re a gifted writer. Keep on writing.

I didn’t take their advice though. I returned to school, became less involved in school newspaper and turned my partying up a notch (as if it could get any higher). By my senior year, I graduated with honors in print journalism, but abandoned it completely afterwards, attending graduate school in public relations.

Years later, I came back around to my love for writing. I have many published works now, but I have received twice as many rejection emails. Almost 10 years later, an evaluation in my full-time job which has nothing to do with writing was what finally taught the hard lesson I’d obviously missed at age 20.

I’d only scored an “average” rating on my evaluation, and I thought I deserved a “good” rating. My first instinct was to return to my office to blast my resume to friends and family and scour Monster.com for another job. I replayed all of my failures in my head that night and it came to me. Perhaps that internship fiasco over 10 years ago was what I needed to bring me down to size and test my endurance. Then, I’d panicked and easily gave up on my dream, never staying the course to make real improvements.

Instead of updating my resume, I accepted what I considered to be failure in my eyes again, and dealt with it head-on. I updated my work goals, changed my working habits and my thinking process, too. I finally learned the lesson of overcoming failure: Dust yourself off, but before you can try again, stay around long enough change what didn’t work the first time around.

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