My first failure was an elementary school science fair. I set out to create a model of an underwater city. I could envision it clearly in my mind—I staged some little buildings on the bottom of an aquarium, glued a clear plastic bowl over them, and filled the tank with water.
You don’t have to be Bill Nye the Science Guy to imagine what happened. For an hour or so, I stood in front of my floating bowl of gluey soup, forced to own my failure.
My first shot at being on stage came in high school, when I was given a solo, “Adelaide’s Lament” from Guys and Dolls. I practiced. I know I practiced. But obviously not enough, or maybe it was just nerves—the moment I opened my mouth, I could tell I was out of tune, with no way back. I attempted to find the right notes again, but ultimately pushed through the whole awful song as the audience cringed.
Being on stage, alone, knowing and feeling my failure, was like being outside my body. I knew what was happening, but the more effort I made to correct it, the worse it got. Afterward, I expected jeers and teasing, but instead, everyone was as kind as they could be. No one outwardly acknowledged my failure. Some even tried to make me feel better by saying how brave I had been to try at all.
There have been more bad performances than I care to remember. The time I tried to play guitar in front of class, my stiff and strange graduation speech, lackluster dance routines with the high school pom squad, and of course other singing disasters—from choir to karaoke to my college a capella group—no matter how well I could picture myself succeeding, no matter how much I tried to prepare, no matter how much others tried to support me, I fell flat, and sharp, and off, just about every time.
The Myth of Specialness
— Those are pretty verses, my little one, very pretty. How does one compose such a charming poem?
— It isn’t difficult, you simply say it out loud.
— Near to the Wild Heart, Clarice Lispector
The author (right) and her sister (the short one practicing her Bill Murray in Caddyshack impression)
My sister and I were latchkey kids. When my parents got divorced, Mom moved out and got a job; she lived with roommates, but came over every morning after Dad left for work to get us ready for school. In the afternoons, sometimes on the weekends, and over long summer vacations, my sister and I spent a lot of time alone. We didn’t play on sports teams or take piano lessons. There were no ballet classes, swim meets or gymnastics—just hours upon hours of free time. Left to our own devices, we did what kids do—we invented our own realities.
In my imagination, I could be anything I wanted—a dancer, a singer, an ad exec, a restaurateur. (I once told my dad that when I grew up I wanted to be, “an actress or a waitress.” His response was that I could probably be both.) I filled journals with poems and songs. I spent hours performing in front of the bathroom mirror, dreaming of an audience.
I also was blessed—or cursed—with a healthy dose of beginner’s luck. Whether it was schoolwork, playing a game or sport, even navigating the tricky landscape of teenage social life, I seemed to be just naturally pretty good at stuff. I had talent. I had gifts. And I developed the belief that these were innate in my being, part of who I was. I was one of the special ones to whom success was fated to come easily and effortlessly.
Unfixing The Mind
Several years ago I was introduced to the work of psychologist Carol Dweck who developed the theory of “fixed” and “growth” mindsets.
People operating from a fixed mindset believe that they are hardwired with certain skills and talents, and equally not hardwired for others. Like they might say, “I’m just not good at math,” or “I’m not a runner.” When someone with a fixed mindset performs well at something, they attribute it to their natural abilities, which is all fine and good when they hit a homerun out of the park.
The problem arises when a fixed-mindsetter fails at something he or she thought was one of their God-given gifts. Self-worth is so intertwined with the things they are good at that a bad performance means they are “slipping” and “losing it”—as if they were born with a limited amount of skill that, one day, will run out.
On the flip side, the growth mindset emphasizes effort over talent. Whether novices or pros, those operating from a growth mindset believe that they always can get better. The most obvious example is sports. Michael Jordan might have been born with natural athleticism, but he also was coached. He learned and practiced, learned and practiced, and learned and practiced some more.
The key tenets of a growth mindset are persistence and perseverance. Try, try again. Growth-mindsetters are able to “fail” because they recognize that losing the battle—missing the shot, not being chosen, falling short of the goal—is not losing the war. There is no risk of running out of talent or skill. There is no fear of “using up” a limited amount of luck.
Getting What I Deserve
In tenth grade, I went with my mom to parent-teacher conferences. I always had been an A and B student, but a few months into my first semester of high school, I had a C in English—which was my favorite and best subject. Mom suggested to my teacher, Mrs. Scornovaco, that perhaps she was grading my work especially hard because I was such an exceptional student. Mrs. Scornovaco did not hesitate. No, she said. I gave Cara the grade she deserves.
Although I’ve dabbled in all manner of arts, writing has been the thing. I wanted to be a writer. A good writer. An unnaturally great writer. A prodigy. But just as with other performances, my creative writing always has fallen short. I work on it and work on it, freewrite and rewrite, reorganize and rearrange, switch out the words and chop out the clunky parts, and yet still I never seem able to convey my vision on the page.
I have taken writing workshops, been in writing groups, read writing books, “finished” a draft of a novel, started and abandoned short stories, penned pages upon pages of poetry, and yet that click, that flow, continues to elude me.
The temptation to give up is strong. Every rejection from grad schools, writing programs and publications is like reopening an old wound. It stings, but when I’m being honest, I have to agree with Mrs. Scornovaco: My work has gotten what it deserves.
Because deep down I know that I have not really tried.
Sure, I have spent hours and days alone with my computer, usually at the last minute of some deadline for a contest or submission, funneling into an idea. I can write adequate sentences describing what I find in my imagination, but it always comes out stilted and bland, no spark, no life.
In his book The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell says it takes 10,000 hours to master something. That would mean practicing two hours a day for about 14 years. What have I given that amount of effort to?
It’s not that I haven’t been trying—in fact, I’ve been working really, really hard. Which might actually be the problem: I’ve scattered my energy across so many things, fueled by beginner’s luck and magical thinking, that even the best of my attempts has amounted to little more than a hail Mary pass into the endzone. Without a structured, focused and disciplined practice, the only thing that I have really mastered is daydreaming about mastering things. That’s not a whole lot to hang your hat on when you’re alone on a stage, facing an expectant audience.
The Importance of Feedback
My most recent bad performance was at my grandfather’s funeral. After my failed attempts in college, I gave up playing an instrument. But in the last year or so I picked up the guitar again, and began teaching myself. I’ve taken some lessons, but mostly I’ve just played for my own enjoyment.
We knew Grandpa was dying for months. You could see it in his gaunt frame, hear the exhaustion in his voice. He was just done. I brought my guitar to Thanksgiving and stumbled through a few songs. It wasn’t great, but it was passable. Grandpa especially seemed to enjoy my rendition of “Dang Me,” the old Roger Miller tune. I don’t think it was my performance, so much as the memory of that song.
Grandpa died in December. We rented out the event room in his retirement trailer park and invited all his friends. My uncles and cousins were there; my sister flew in from San Francisco. Since I knew that he had enjoyed my playing, I wanted to honor Grandpa by performing at his service.
I played a few songs, fumbling through the chords and trying to keep it together with a roomful of retirees staring at me in shock and discomfort as I missed cues, lost notes, played wrong strings, but just kept singing, kept going, because what other choice did I have? Was I going to just throw my hands up and say, sorry, I can’t do it? Would it be better to just stop, put my guitar back in the case, and shuffle to my folding chair in the front row without finishing?
The response was lukewarm. At least you tried, everyone seemed to say. Trying is something. Trying is commendable. But an equal number of people avoided my gaze, eager to slip out without being forced to concoct some apologetic encouragement. My shame was visceral to them. They could not stand to be near it.
That my failure was too awkward to acknowledge was, in some ways, the worst part. No one just flat-out said, Well, that obviously sucked. This might seem like an odd thing to begrudge anyone—after all, they were just being nice. I have certainly employed the same tactics many times myself. But this messes with the third, and in many ways, the most crucial aspect of a growth mindset. In addition to persistence and perseverance, growth-mindsetters need honest feedback to improve performance.
The cycle is the same in any iterative improvement process: Plan, build, execute, evaluate, adjust; then plan, build, execute, evaluate and adjust some more. It is nearly impossible to have continuous improvement if you skip the evaluation step.
The problem with locking myself in my room and burrowing into hours and hours of editing my own writing is that there is no calibration with the outside world. It’s a closed loop with no opportunity for real advancement—like a needle stuck in the same groove of a record, it will just continue skipping along.
Inviting and accepting feedback—whether from a coach, teacher or audience—is especially critical when you feel stuck. Often we can get so in our own heads that we reinforce bad habits and develop blindspots.
About a month ago, I attended a three-day workshop on Human Computer Interaction in Chicago. The facilitator was Bruce “Tog” Tognazzini, one of Steve Jobs’s original “boys.” Tog was Apple’s first HCI designer and worked with the company from 1978 to 1992. He is now a principal at the Nielsen/Norman Group, where his partners are Jakob Nielsen, the inventor of heuristic evaluation, and Don Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things, widely regarded as a foundational book on usability.
HCI is based on applying evaluative data from testing to create the best possible experience for the user. The workshop covered a lot of ground, but what I found most fascinating was Tog’s insider view of what made Apple so successful—it wasn’t just brilliant engineers; in fact, brilliant engineers were sometimes the problem, especially when they got overconfident on their own designs and proceeded full-steam ahead without user testing.
There is an arrogance about the refusal to acknowledge negative feedback. This is when you hear artists, writers and musicians say things like “they just don’t get me” or “I’m ahead of my time.” Chances are that you are not actually a misunderstood genius, but that you are too closed off from feedback to see that you are failing to connect.
In the case of singing and playing guitar, I certainly could have gotten better on my own by practicing more. But the one thing that I was not practicing was performing in front of people. When I sing and play alone, I feel free to mess up. If something isn’t going well, or I miss a note or lose a lyric, I simply start again.
Also, when I play by myself, what feels and sounds good to me is all that matters. However, in the real world, performing for others is a form of communication—it requires an interplay and exchange of energy. We have all seen performers who are totally oblivious to the audience. They are clearly enjoying themselves, but they are not paying any attention to the lack of energy coming back to them from the onlookers. Not only is this painful for the audience, but it is actually pretty selfish on the part of the performer, tantamount to public masturbation.
By contrast, we’ve all seen great performers—so attuned to the audience, so open to feedback, that they can adjust on the fly. They improvise, explore, expand and even surprise themselves with their performances. Sure, they might make a few mistakes, but that is expected when an artist is truly in the flow of the creative process.
Making music, writing, and just about every other artform is really about play. The fixed mindset, I-was-born-with-it approach doesn’t allow room for play. Even little failures mean that I must not be talented after all; I must not be a writer; I must not be a singer; I must have “lost it.” And because this is such a depressing thought, I must hide from the feedback. I end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I stop practicing, stop listening—stunting any progress I might have made—and vow never to try again unless I’m sure that I will be absolutely perfect.
The Rules of The Game
The Lamstons were a family that, after a good start, had come to be characterized by permanent overall failure, and people generally shunned them for it. In return, they withheld themselves. It was their only point of pride, I suppose. Which is why the children remained so sadly aloof, even to me. And who could begrudge them?
— The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks
In 2005, when I was 30 years old, I declared personal bankruptcy. Looking back, it seems like such a cowardly and lazy thing to do. I got into credit card debt in college. I was lucky in that my tuition was covered by Pell grants (this was back in the olden days when in-state tuition was incredibly cheap), but I still took out about $15,000 in student loans.
I lived with roommates and paid for all of my own expenses, including rent and utilities, food, gas, car repairs and maintenance, my phone, books, clothes, etc. I wouldn’t say I was an elaborate spender, but I definitely bought a few too many new outfits because I had “nothing to wear.” I spent a lot of money going out to eat and, mostly, drink.
My part-time, minimum-wage job at the pizza place covered some expenses, but I often found myself struggling to make ends meet. When I graduated, I had about $10,000 in credit card debt, and by my mid-twenties it had climbed to $20,000.
At 30, I was in a long-term relationship. We did not share a bank account, but we split bills and rent; and we bought a car together. My debt felt like an insurmountable burden by that point. I had never really tried to keep a budget or track my spending. I certainly wasn’t prioritizing paying off my credit cards. It felt too big. Too scary. My boyfriend and I decided as a couple that bankruptcy would be my best option—after all, we would have his credit, which was pretty good. And I didn’t have any assets to lose.
The bankruptcy itself was pretty painless. I met with a lawyer and filled out all the paperwork. To be honest, I can’t even remember going to court. I just got an email from him saying that it was all taken care of.
While my credit was definitely shot, my bankruptcy didn’t really affect me in any other way. Within a couple of months, I was already receiving credit card offers, and within a few years, I had racked up about $5,000 in credit card debt. Again.
Ultimately, it was the Great Recession that motivated me to change my financial behavior. It really pissed me off that big banks and financial institutions got away with preying on people’s ignorance—whether through subprime mortgages or handing out credit cards to unsuspecting college students, or simply making credit card agreements so hard to understand that if you weren’t savvy or conscientious enough to read all the fine print, you could easily get screwed by skyrocketing interest rates. I recognized that, by carrying balances on my cards and making only minimum payments, I was empowering these institutions to control me and my money.
I now have paid off my credit card debt, and almost paid off my student loans. I began by tracking my spending, keeping a budget, and creating a payoff plan that meant drastically adjusting my lifestyle. For the past several years, I have not had a car, or TV or even Internet at home. I have learned to cook and prepare my own meals rather than going out to eat. I still splurge—quite a bit, actually—but I am confident that I will never get into the same kind of debt I was in before.
As of last month, it has been 10 years since my bankruptcy, which means that it no longer appears as a mark against my credit. I have a near-perfect credit score, and more importantly, I now view money as the seeds of my future rather than as a shackle holding me back from my goals.
Ironically, I now work as a marketing manager for a nonprofit that promotes financial capability. We are funded by an endowment that is basically a very well-invested chunk of change we got when we sold the College for Financial Planning in the mid-90s. This puts us in a highly unique situation for a nonprofit, in that we never ask anyone for money. We don’t take grants from corporations or the government. We never charge for anything, and there are never any advertisements. Everything we produce is completely free, unbiased and noncommercial.
Our only purpose is to help people—especially those who are not getting this information anywhere else—make better financial decisions, to improve their lives and reach their personal goals, whatever those might be.
But you’d be surprised how hard it is to give away good information. For one thing, everybody already knows what they’re supposed to do. Just like we all know that we’re supposed to eat vegetables and exercise, we all know that we should live within our means and save for the future. But these are the kinds of behavior changes that feel really hard, if not impossible—mostly because there often aren’t immediate results.
Completely changing your health (physical, mental, emotional, financial) is a long process accomplished through a series of small, boring choices. It is hard to build momentum in the beginning, and for a while, you have to fight to find the motivation to keep doing it. But there comes a moment when you start to feel the positive change taking hold, and when the breakthrough comes, it feels so obvious. It makes perfect sense.
I believe money habits are so hard to change because there is great risk of failure, but even more than that, we are taught to believe that being “good with money” is one of those fixed, inherent traits that you are either born with or not.
But let’s get real—most of the people in the world right now who have money started out with money to begin with. Sure, there are lots of examples of scrappy go-getters who built their wealth from the ground up, but the majority of wealthy people began with privileges that placed them way ahead of the curve. What makes this especially unfair is the stigma that gets attached to financial mistakes. The deck is unconscionably stacked against poor people who have never really been taught the rules of the game.
That’s why applying a growth mindset to one’s finances is so powerful. Rather than allowing past mistakes and misjudgments to define you as “bad with money,” you can take that power back from the corrupt system and simply say: No more. When you are educated to avoid predatory practices (some malicious, some just opportunistic), and when you start holding yourself accountable for your own actions, you can actually make that system start to work for you.
Freedom to Fail
So be heartened. Yes, you may have done badly this time but you are not what you did. You are many possible acts — some of which you will discover if you keep trying.
— Albert Ellis
I recently wrote an article about gaming and game culture in financial education. My research drew heavily from the 2011 book Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal. She argues that more and more people are playing games—be they traditional video games, multiplayer online games or casual mobile games such as CandyCrush—not because the Internet is turning us into antisocial, screen-addicted hermits, but because our society is not designed to motivate us.
McGonigal says good games satisfy a longing for meaningful work and provide opportunities to face increasingly difficult challenges within an environment where it is safe to fail. In fact, failure is often what keeps players coming back. When your avatar doesn’t advance to the next level, you immediately want to play again—you get better the more you play because you are gathering feedback from the game about how to do better next time.
This is a stark contrast to real life, which often leaves us feeling powerless and unsure of how to improve our situations. We often are punished for making mistakes; we are given few opportunities to “try, try again,” and the pressure to perform perfectly feeds into fear and risk aversion. Failure feels like such a huge risk that we choose not to stretch out of our comfort zones and push our abilities. We would rather be the ones sitting in the audience judging the performer than step out on to that stage and face the possibility of embarrassment.
I once heard a story on NPR about psychologist Albert Ellis, the founder of cognitive behavioral therapy. Ellis was a shy, awkward young man coming of age in 1930’s New York. He wanted nothing more than to start dating, but he was deathly afraid of rejection.
When he was 19, Ellis devised a plan—he went to the Bronx Botanical Garden every day for a month. If he saw a woman sitting alone on a park bench, he forced himself to sit next to her and start up a conversation. He attempted to talk to 130 women. Thirty of them got up and walked away immediately. Ninety-nine of them talked to him, but rejected his offer of a date. One woman said yes to the date, but never showed up. Ellis may not have made much progress romantically, but after that month he was no longer afraid to talk to women.
That is one of the happy side effects of failing over and over again: Eventually you just stop giving a shit. It takes the punch out of the fear of embarrassment and other people’s judgments because you know that these are all just feelings, and feelings pass.
In the story of my life so far, 2007 was my year of epic failures. From the outside, it appeared that everything I had ever wanted was coming my way. I was making more money than I’d ever made before. I had worked my way up from associate editor, to managing editor, to editor-in-chief of a magazine in a very short period of time. And I was engaged to my longtime boyfriend.
The only problem was that none of it felt right. I was way too inexperienced to run an editorial department, and way too timid to fight for what I needed to do my job well. Disagreements with management and discontent among the staff grew. My own feeling of powerlessness caused me to make rash and desperate decisions without considering the effects of my actions on other people. It reached a point where I wanted nothing more than to just get out of that situation, which I did in a clumsy and inconsiderate way. One of my former colleagues said it was if I had “farted and left the room.”
At this same time, my relationship with my fiancé hit a rough patch. In the five years that we had been dating, I believed whole-heartedly that we would be together for the rest of our lives. But suddenly, once we were engaged, all the little landmines we’d been avoiding as a couple started to blow up in our faces. I realized that the things that I could live with when we were boyfriend and girlfriend, I could not live with as husband and wife.
The hardest part was that we could not communicate our needs to one another. In hindsight, it seems obvious that the reason I couldn’t ask for what I needed was that I didn’t know what I needed. I did not know how to be in a mutually supportive and beneficial partnership. I didn’t know how to love and be loved as a whole person.
When all the dust settled, I found myself single again and back living in my hometown, working as an associate editor at a B2B magazine in the natural foods industry. There was something unexpectedly liberating about hitting the reset button and starting over. I knew that I still had lessons to learn, both professionally and personally, and I was willing to take a few steps backward to regain my footing.
Not that it was much easier the second time around. I never went to journalism school, and never had any training in interviewing or writing articles. I just sort of fell into features writing and found I had a knack for it. (Duh! I’m just good at stuff!) All of my prior editorial experience had been at a free advertorial publication where there wasn’t much danger of messing anything up too badly, because the sources we interviewed usually approved the copy.
By contrast, the B2B publication prided itself on news writing. In addition to features, I was responsible for scanning the wires and writing at least two news stories per week. This was an enormous learning curve. Not only had I never been a reporter before, I also knew next to nothing about the natural foods industry. I was interviewing experts in highly technical fields and was forced to quickly get up to speed on everything from organic regulations and nutrition science to retail sales and merchandising.
For one such story, I interviewed a longtime source of the magazine for a story about President Obama’s nominee for deputy secretary of the USDA. It was not a contentious or controversial story and our conversation had been easy and free flowing. But when it came time to turn the story in, I found that I was unable to decipher some of my notes. Under deadline pressure, I made a rash decision to take a guess at what my notes meant without double checking with the source before publication.
The source was not pleased. He called me the next day and made sure I knew just how disappointed he was that I had not even made an effort to clarify my confusion before the story went live. He was absolutely right, and I knew it. I started to apologize profusely, but he stopped me and said something I’ll never forget. It was just one word: Onward.
That has become a sort of mantra of mine. No matter what has happened, what mistakes were made, where I have fallen short or how many times I have given a bad performance, the appropriate response is always to keep going. The past can’t be erased, so why waste time and energy fretting over it. Correct what you can, learn what you can, and proceed.
Even if the opposite were true—if everything went perfectly, all the pieces fell into place and the results far exceeded expectations, the appropriate response still would be… onward. It’s not over until it’s over and getting stuck on past successes can be just as stunting as being hung up on regrets.
Last year some friends invited me to sit in on their band practice. They have a space in an old school building in east Denver where many local bands rent rehearsal rooms. Playing with a drummer and a bassist, singing into a microphone with a plugged-in guitar—it was the first time I felt like a real musician. And I played surprisingly well. This was before I’d attempted to play in front of an audience, and at least six months before Grandpa’s funeral. It all seemed to be flowing so easily; I had so much confidence that I felt virtually unstoppable. My friends in the band could tell that I was excited, and one of them turned to the other with a knowing look.
“She hasn’t had the humbling,” he said.
I honestly can say now that I believe I’ve had “the humbling” in just about every aspect of my life. I’ve been knocked down and slowly built my way back up, only now I have a much stronger foundation.
Romantic failure has been the hardest to overcome, but also stands to be the biggest and most important lesson. I have not had a serious relationship in the eight years since we called off the wedding. I’ve dated and had a few short interludes, but nothing approaching the committed partnership I desire. In some ways, I know that I have sabotaged my chances—partially out of fear of “failing” again, and partially as punishment for all the things I felt I did wrong. It goes back to that fixed mentality—since that situation didn’t work out, it must mean that I’m just bad at relationships. That was my one shot, and I blew it. But that is silly. I was a great girlfriend, and I know that one day I will be an even greater wife.
How can I be so sure? Because as I have intentionally developed more compassion and understanding of my own failures, I also have developed more empathy for others. One of the hardest things in a relationship is to give up the need to be right. By consciously working to live from a growth mindset, I have been able to allow more ease and flow into my life. I let things go more than I ever have before, and I’m much more willing to concede to another’s point of view.
I also have a much more relaxed idea of what it means to fail, and to succeed. I know now that I am not a good writer or a bad writer; I am a writer. I am not a good musician or a bad musician; I’m a musician. I’m not a good person or a bad person; I’m a person. And above all else, I am not a finished product. I am a work in progress.