Fail Fearlessly by Cori Gilbert Wallace

There’s a moment when you receive that fifth “You can do it!!” email, the eighth tweet of encouragement, the fifteenth hug when you most desperately need it, where you realize the basic, yucky, facts.

This did not work out AT ALL.

In any way.

It was a big, fat, failure. From top to bottom.

Relationships were strained. Friendships did not survive. Emotions were high.

It stunk.

Failure offers a renewed sense of personal resilience. But beyond that, big, fat failure allows us to adjust the lenses through which we view our lives to be just rose-tinted enough to survive, but just clear enough to maintain some self respect and see what we are capable of surviving.

Most of the ability to survive a failed situation resides within.

I paused when I wrote that last sentence. For some reason, I really, really paused. I believe that the ability to survive resides within, but I also still confront that small, high-pitched internal voice. YOU AREN’T GOOD ENOUGH!!! THIS IS YOUR FAULT!! WHY CAN’T YOU MAKE THIS WORK???! YOU AREN’T A VICTIM!! WHAT ARE YOU SURVIVING, YOU BIG BABY??!! PEOPLE ARE EXPERIENCING WORSE!!! GET OVER YOURSELF!!!!

And then the answer comes. I know what I’m surviving. It’s not failure. I’m surviving my own fears, self doubts, and hesitations. I’m finding the way to survive, again and again, the worst parts of myself.

For all the talk about the importance of failure in learning, women sure don’t like talking about theirs. I am certainly no exception. It’s been a rough year. For lots of reasons, personal and professional, the academic year of 2012-2013 has been undoubtedly one of the worst on record. It was so bad, so unwaveringly terrifying, so personally challenging, that I’m clinging to the one small truth that sustains me.

I survived.

Not to get too detailed, but the best way to articulate the general goings-on would be to say, I lost dear, beloved friends. I removed friends from my life. I lost loved ones. I gained distrust in other people. People lost trust in me. I discovered deception. I cared for a seriously ill parent. I lost mentors and mentees. I grieved. I resigned. I upped my investment in therapy. I said “I’m sorry” and “I’m scared” more times than I can count. I wrote letters and blog posts and emails and Facebook messages and speeches and e-cards and tweets and press releases that did not express the massive inner turmoil, the painful and personal, public and private struggles I was facing.

I was asked to write this blog when things were going so incredibly well. I was in a bright spot in my life, experiencing a burst of good fortune. As the universe does, it delivered a burst of validation that I had something to share, and a worthwhile and helpful story to tell. Like a balloon, that air-filled sac of self confidence slowly lost volume, and my self-confidence drifted to the floor. And then I had a thought….

What if the best thing I have to offer is a seat right next to me on the “fail boat”? What if there is a woman out there, failing, right now? What can I do to help her?

And I pause again. Because I really want to help you. We need smart, caring, effective women like you to be living their best lives, in environments where they can thrive. We need women in student affairs to find other women to support, and to find new avenues to offer their skills and talents to the communities where learning occurs.

Here is what I have to offer my fellow failures after my year of failing miserably.

Let go of shame. Are you Bernie Madoff? No? Well then that’s one check in the right column. Most of my mentors manage the shame of other people incredibly well. My sophomore year in college, my English professor, Dr. Florence Krause asked me to pay a visit to her office one Spring afternoon, to talk about my academic performance and discuss my plans after graduation. Dr. Krauss was a tiny, feisty teacher from Oxford, Mississippi. She was the picture of smarts and virtue. At that time, I was pretty deeply self shaming. (Who am I kidding? Still working on it!) Dr. Krause said something that continues to motivate me to this day. “You can do anything. Don’t let your shame stop you from believing you are worth the support of other people.” I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Krause, a mentor of mine, a valued educator, who is still serving others and living a fairly incredible life. She doesn’t want you to sit in humiliation, and neither do I.

Fish when the fish are running. Or strike while the iron is hot. That first rush of energy to solve a problem when you find the answer, the bright moment of motivation, or that feeling one sunny morning when you finally want to get out of bed is the moment. It is the moment that counts. If you feel stuck, or unmotivated, the most powerful opportunity might just be your next tiny moment of bravery. Jump on that moment. Make something, anything happen.

I literally keep a list of people to call or email with big ideas who I know won’t laugh at me. Those people are called friends. They dream with me and help me leapfrog over inertia. They keep my mind running with ideas. When I feel brave enough to get outside of my comfort zone, I act right then. You can too. Don’t wait. Get moving.

Listen to small voices. I’ve had many conversations where a small inner voice whispered to me, and I ignored the voice or tried to outwit my intuition. For example, I once had a conversation where someone indicated (in the midst of some intentional vulnerability) that I had nothing to worry about, and that nothing mattered more to this person than relationships. I knew this person, unfortunately, was lying. Hearing I “had nothing to worry about” was a deliberate attempt to challenge fear, and any person who cannot authentically lean into your fear with you and work through it, well, is trying to manipulate you. I’ve know that for years. I should have listened to my small, still voice, as it has been crafted by experience. You should too. You are pretty smart! Use those smarts and listen to yourself.

Protect your spirit. I follow Lolly Daskal on Twitter, and I read her blog. Inspiring, uplifting, and wise, Lolly offers healthy, helpful tips that motivate more than 200,000 fans and followers. One day, she retweeted a peers blog post, entitled “How Not to Suck.” I felt pretty sucky that day, so I didn’t read it. I wasn’t comfortable sharing every detail of my struggles with friends or colleagues, so I kept some things private, and when I’m feeling hurt or sad, I don’t heap on additional content or conversations that will make my spirit drop any farther down the well. Not to avoid challenging content, but to self protect. Here’s the deal I’ve made with myself — If I know a conversation is going to be hard, I have it, but then I put it in perspective. Yes, sometimes conversations hurt. But no one ever died from a conversation. Avoid negativity when you need to, but walk into every conversation knowing you will make it out alive.

Stay humble and hungry for more. Let me be clear..humility does not mean devaluing yourself to elevate others. Humility is self-awareness with a healthy sense of imperfection, that relies on personal drive and development. Many of the women I admire most are hard working, self-aware, but also value their time and uniqueness. They value their uniqueness so much that they are constantly honing and refining the “good but could be great” elements of their personas, adding to the personal toolbox, and building their emotional intelligence. They are hungry to improve, because they use personal growth and well-being to measure improvement. They are team players, and work for and with other people, but their primary occupation is maximizing who they are, and what they have to give. They are internally motivated to find the next great lesson, and they are always learning. Be humble. Be humble. Be humble.

Never forget, even when you fail (or let yourself or others down) you are worthy of love. I’ve made friends with personal and professional rejection this year. Not just the ”Hey, haven’t seen you for a while, let me remind you why it really stinks to have me around!” kind of friend, but the “I’m moving in, and I’m going to follow you to places with new people, who you really want to respect and value you. I’m going to be here awhile, sister, so sit back and get comfy!” kind of companion.When I’m feeling rejected, I always try to look at what I have done, what I’m not giving, or what I lack that creates a space to feel rejected. That coping mechanism doesn’t work, and it also doesn’t give me any answers. It’s terrible for people who want to be liked (you know, as a sign of humanity and love of others) to experience rejection, because it reminds you that there are people out there who don’t think you are that great. They might actually think you are pretty terrible.

But you know, they are wrong.

The most well-adjusted people I know understand their own egos, and honestly believe they are worthy of love. They have self respect. They don’t manipulate or compartmentalize or self-shame. They know they are worthy. That they have merit. They that even their worst failures are not so repulsive that they can’t gain grace.

Make grace your most valued companion, and lend her to everyone that you can.

I also made fairly good friends with grace this year. I had to find her myself….she was tough to track down. I had to put her ahead of almost every conversation, and I had to remind myself that I was worthy of having her by my side — that I was worthy of empathy from myself and others. My interactions with students made personal grace a little easier. Most students have the real need to determine what core values make them more confident and able to deal with life’s ever-present challenges. My best conversations with students, the ones that really get them to think are ones where we explore what values matter to them. Most values that I hear repeated again and again are those related to integrity, family, courage and hope. Demonstration of these values, living these principles requires empathy for others, and for yourself.

I think the concept of personal mercy, being gracious and gentle with yourself cannot be underestimated as a coping mechanism. Even in the midst of failure, grace should never leave your side.

I’m not good with things ending. The ending of the school year, of relationships…I typically bungle endings and only half-heartedly allow myself any closure. But I’m closing out this phase, and this post knowing that I’m stronger BECAUSE the “failboat” has had me as a passenger for a little longer than desired. If you are sitting with me, please know, your personal failures will never transcend the love you give to others. You will stumble and fall, many times, but at least that means you are running. Keep running. You can outrun those without the courage to race boldly, and that is worth the skinned knees and shortness of breath. Are you ready? Let’s go.

For additional thoughts on failing fearlessly, I encourage you to visit this blog post written by my friend Matt Monge, and I encourage you to read the work of Brene Brown.

Cori Gilbert Wallace is the Vice President: Communications for Delta Gamma Fraternity. Find her on Twitter @corinwallace.

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