A few years back, a friend asked me what my biggest failure was. I remember, I had just graduated from College then, and I was working at the premier university of the country. Both things considered, it was hard for me to think of something that I could aptly categorize as a big mistake or a catastrophic breakdown, at least at that point in my life.
But I knew that the fact that I couldn’t say anything in reply to that very important question meant that I was missing something huge. So I started to think hard about how I was living my life.
When I was offered that position, it was a no-brainer. I wanted to pursue a career in the academe as a health professional. I wanted to do research, and I wanted to teach. And I knew that the means to my end was to surround myself with people from the same field, who were of a perfectly equal mix of passion and brilliance. Plus, to be offered the position meant a lot. It was both a huge opportunity and a huge privilege.
True enough, just a few months into the work I was already able to see who I wanted to be and who I was not just yet, and the environment readily compelled me to bridge the void between those two extremes. I couldn’t deny the fact however, that at the back of my head, things weren’t exactly how I thought they’d be. Somehow it felt a lot like my heart wasn’t into it, as if the work itself didn’t seem a lot like me. All the work that I was doing, despite its significance and extensive implications, slowly started to lose its worth to me. But like any other task-oriented choleric, I simply brushed such thoughts off and instead channeled my efforts to work well.
Eventually I finally came to terms with the fact that perhaps I was merely tailor-fitting myself into a career that I had chosen, when I was longing to be in a calling that called out to me just as I was. It was a series of should’s and ought’s even right from the beginning. I did my best, which resulted to quality work, but I wasn’t passionate at all. It was just all of the motions and none of the heart. I did things not because I wanted to, but only because I had to. And I grew tired. The most exhausting part was making all the effort to fulfill an expectation that I was, apparently, only imagining that others were setting for me.
It wasn’t working out, and for a period of time I wasn’t willing to admit it. Admitting it meant having to give up, and I didn’t want to be pegged as a quitter. I felt like I had no choice but to keep going. So I went on convincing myself that I was doing well, and along the way I ended up convincing everyone else too. The truth was that I was haplessly forcing myself into something I didn’t seem naturally cut-out to be. The truth was that I was failing in more ways than one.
I knew what I had to do, I knew what I wanted to pursue, but I was afraid. I was afraid that I’ll make a mistake, I was afraid to leave what then seemed comfortable, and I was afraid that if people found out that I actually wanted to be a writer, they’d think me naive and just downright foolish for trying to make a career out of a hobby or for getting a job that is not quite a real one.
It was in the midst of all these fears that it became clear to me: my first year of teaching in the university is my biggest failure yet – not because of any technical incapability or some untoward circumstance, but simply because it marks my apathetic and willful tolerance of my own victimizing and passivity, wherein I allowed myself over and over to be devoid of any choice in my life. It marks a point in my life where my motivation was solely fuelled by other people’s opinion of me, and that made me live every other life there was but my own. It marks my cowardice, as I willfully exchanged my passions – the very things that made me feel alive – for things that sucked the life out of me, just because it was comfortable and I was afraid to sail uncharted seas.
It was failure craftily trying to cover up as success.
And as it is with all other failures, upon realizing it, I had to accept it, learn what I could from it, and move on. And I did.
It’s been a year since my full-time work in the academe. Right now I’m taking steps to become a full-time writer. Such a stark contrast, I know. It has always been something I wanted to do but kept on ignoring. Despite me now doing something I really love, I know there will be future failures still, for sure. For all I know, all my current efforts can come full circle, and only lead me exactly where I started – clueless and unfulfilled. But at least now, I’m more keen to know failure when I see one.
Because sometimes, that is the failure – not being able to know it when we see it. Failure isn’t just about being mediocre, getting fired from work, living through a broken relationship, living in debt – not all failures come in the form of intractable mistakes or technical mishaps. There are times too when our failures come in a way that we least expect. And to miss out on our failures is to miss out on opportunities to learn and grow, and make the most out of this life.
What’s your biggest failure yet?