I’ve failed a bunch of times. I’ve lost. I’ve made a royal mess of things.
I share that for a couple of reasons.
First, I say I’ve failed because I’m going to write about some of my failures this week. (Yay, fun. Just what I’ve always wanted to do – broadcast my losses.) But I’m doing it because really kind people have said things recently like, “Oh, you are so amazing, I don’t know how you do it all,” or “Wow, you just have the perfect family and career and you’re just so lucky.” Ahem. I write a lot about resilience in the face of failure in leadership, but all too often people look at the people leading and don’t see the failures. They just see the success.
Second, I heard this incredible message on Saturday morning. It deserves its own post, but the punchline was that when you’re greatest hopes crash into pieces against a rock, you must not become immobilized holding those pieces rather than doing the work necessary to have them restored.
I could write a year long series on the setbacks I’ve had, but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t do either of us any good. So instead I’m going to share three stories this week that caused incredible heartache and despair when they occurred, but looking back now I can see why I had to go through the loss. Today’s story is especially for the young adults starting out and having a hard time finding their dream, or a career, or even a job. Tomorrow’s story is for anyone who has ever gotten fired or shredded at work. And I’ll wrap up Wednesday with a story for anyone who has ever had their heart broken wide open.
I went to Vanderbilt Law School with grand plans. Since I didn’t get accepted at University of Chicago, I figured I’d find a job in Chicago out of law school (I’d fallen in love with it at 18 and wanted to get back there). My entire life, I’d been a very shy, very obedient, nearly perfect kid. I made straight As, worked from the time I was 12 to help my family (we had very limited means), taught Sunday School, and made the peace.
Then I went to law school. And I sort of went wild. For the first time since 7th grade, I didn’t have a job besides school and I hung out with people that were well practiced at the art of partying. I did fine my first semester, but my second semester I tanked. To top it off, I spent the summer studying in Oxford so I didn’t add an ounce of practical knowledge to my resume for the fall recruiting season.
I cannot even count the on-campus interviews I gave. A bunch. For law firms at most cities in America. I did not receive ONE call back. Not one single solitary employer was interested in giving me a second interview (and most definitely no one in Chicago). I thought about dropping out of law school. I wasn’t loving much but the social aspect, and I clearly was unemployable. But I owed Vanderbilt $33,000 for my first year. Oh, and I owed Oxford some money. So I decided I better get a degree.
The one thing I had NO plans to do was move back to Texas. But it turned out, Texas was one of the few markets hiring in 1997. So I wrote a lot of Dallas/Fort Worth law firms letters (you see, this was before everyone had email addresses), and I bought myself a plane ticket and met a bunch of lawyers. One wonderfully brave law firm extended me an offer for a six week clerkship that summer. I joined a class of 8 clerks. I have never been so grateful.
But I still had another half of my summer to fill. And no job to fill it. So while my fellow law students did big firm summer splits, I moved home with my mother for six weeks and took a job with a temp agency as an assistant at Compaq. I told people that I worked in their law department, which ironically I was stationed in, but never mentioned that it was through a temp agency as an admin.
I share this story, which still creates that well of insecurity in me, to let you know that I have no pedigree. My family has no money or connections. I went to a tiny undergraduate school in Arkansas that folks still can’t pronounce, and I still don’t know exactly how I ended up at Vanderbilt. I hung out with people that had way more money that me and I got in a lot of credit card debt. I stayed in law school my second year because I didn’t feel I had any options. I only ever had one real law firm clerkship and thankfully they extended me an offer.
If you had told that insecure law student that she would work for a global energy company and write a book and have a family and win some awards, she would have told you to sober up.
Those failures, academic, personal, professional, made me stronger. They introduced me to a community I would have never known and for which I am ever so thankful to have found. They paved the path that needed to be paved. I took some detours that didn’t need to happen, but God used even those to teach me something about myself and others.
Don’t be embarrassed about the way you got to where you are. And don’t be scared that your current situation defines your future potential. It. Does. Not.