I Don't Want to Be a Failure
The fear of failure has been one of my biggest crippling forces. So I decided to unpack it.
I still remember my first real political fight. It was a month before my junior year of college at SUNY Old Westbury and I was on campus early for Resident Assistant (RA) training. That year was interesting because the Vice President of student activities had resigned, and there was an interim VP while the school decided how it wanted to handle the opening. The interim, let’s call her Ms. Jones. Ms. Jones was an older Black woman whose work experience was entirely in the private sector as a Wall Street investor. She had no background in education and wasn’t used to having to deal with college admin, let alone the students. Experience or not, she was the woman in charge of our department
On the first day of training, she joined us for breakfast and gave a speech. To this day it remains one of the strangest moments I have ever experienced.
She started off by demanding that we (The RA’s) thank her and the president of the college, Calvin Butts because the two of them were giving us free room and board to “hang out with students and party.” Then she took out a marker listed the full price of a room and said we cost the college $14,000 per semester. It was a public university that our parent's taxes dollars funded, but I don’t think she understood that. I spent the entire ten-minute speech laughing quietly and joking with friends, I think everyone in the room thought she was exaggerating for effect. Especially when she said they were considering taking the extra furniture from our rooms as a “cost-cutting measure” One of the perks of being an RA was that you had two beds when most of the campus was sleeping on rock hard twin-sized mattresses. Having the ability to sleep on a full was very attractive, and no one was happy about the prospect of losing those. However, Ms. Jones said she was making the comment in jest, so we brushed it off.
About two hours after her remarks, and during one of the most boring training sessions of that week, my friend, Reggie stormed into the conference room with some surprising news. According to him, maintenance workers were keying into all of the RA’s rooms to remove our “extra furniture.” Apparently, they had been ordered to do this by Ms. Jones. None of us believed Reggie so we left to see for ourselves, it was true. Ms. Jones had sent in maintenance workers into our rooms without our permission to “retrieve school property.” In order to do that, they had to move our personal belongings. People returned to rooms, only to find their personal belongings had been thrown across the floor, broken or in some cases missing. We reached out to Ms. Jones, but she refused to meet with us, instead, sending a message through her assistant, saying, “you don’t pay for this, be happy you have a room.”
This kicked off what would be my first organized fight. I joined 33 of a total of 35 RA’s in writing a letter to the admin demanding an apology for breaking into our rooms, a promise to return the furniture, and a halt at any further attempts to enter people's rooms without our expressed permission. We came to the student union the next day dressed in business attire, and a plan to handle the situation. We sent two spokespeople to her office to deliver the letter, and an invitation to speak to us in the cafeteria. She never came. Instead, the two spokespeople were escorted back by a Residential Director who informed us that we had all been fired for “ insubordination.” We tried school President, Calvin Butts for help, but his office called university police on us and threatened to have every RA present arrested and expelled if we did not leave his office. We hadn’t planned to go to war with the administration, we just wanted an apology for what felt like an overreach on the admins part, but it didn’t matter, we were in one now.
With the fear of arrest and expulsion hovering over us, we gave up our fight and returned to the training. I still remember the hurt and resentment I felt after failing to win what should have been an easy battle. I was the student government president, the other RA’s had trusted me to be their leader, and after everything we planned, it didn’t matter. We lost. I remember feeling embarrassed and worthless. Everyone kept telling me it wasn’t my fault, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t deserve their grace because I had nothing to show for their efforts.
That happened over ten years ago, but the pain of that loss still burns deep. It was one of my first opportunities to rise to the occasion, and I fell short. Since then, I have failed more times than I can count, I have failed more times than I have succeeded, and have done so with higher stakes and larger consequences. Each defeat has been painful in its own particular way, but here I am, still moving, still trying. Why?
I used to always think that my biggest fear was failure. It’s a fear so strong that it has debilitated me, caused me to question who I am what I do, and whether I’m making a difference. And because it has such a strong impact on me, I have committed to understanding my relationship with it.
Here’s what I learned, failure stinks, but everyone fails, it’s the feeling that comes once you realized defeat is near or present that is actually relevant. I have felt many things when failure hit my universe, I have also learned how to interpret where those feelings come from. I learned that the feeling of emptiness that occurred when I wasn’t able to accomplish something came from the part of me who yearns to be accepted. It’s from the kid in me who just wants his father to love him, who thinks that if he’s smart enough, funny enough, or well behaved enough, his mother will suddenly be able to come to the states and be with him. It comes from Stanley who wants the world to believe that he “matters” it's from Stanley who at his core, wants so badly to be loved.
As much as I hate failure, and I do, I had to learn that much of what drove me was rooted in a pain that I couldn’t always understand. The pain of not feeling like anyone really cared about me, the pain that comes from feeling abandoned, and the quiet acceptance that occurs when you begin to believe that you really aren’t important in anyone’s eyes if you have nothing to offer.
My fear and hatred of failure were rooted in the deep loneliness that I felt, and quite honestly, at times I still feel. It’s rooted in the moments when I think about the people in my life, and second, guess whether I am important to them. It’s rooted in the little boy who so badly wants to be special to someone, anyone. All of those feelings fermented in me, and as I stepped into my adult age, I tried to use it as fuel to excel, because if you excel, if you do good, people will love you. If you are funny and can make people laugh, they will want you around, if you are smart, you will be useful, and as long as you bring something to the table, you will always have a place in the world and with people.
It's kind of hard to reflect on yourself and be forced to admit how much you have been a slave to the ideas and whims of others. Judge me if you like, but the truth is, it has been a driving factor in the way I viewed myself and the world. It was impossible to love Stanley with no context, so I had to prove I was worth the energy through my accomplishments. Or so I thought.
I’m still processing these uncomfortable truths about me, I don’t think you can take a full look at yourself, see the broken pieces, and just be ok to keep living life. I definitely am not. But I’m trying to take the lessons that life has given me, and the clarity I continue to gain so I can hopefully be a better man. So yes, failure sucks, but it’s inevitable, and no matter how good you are, you will fail once in a while. But In every loss, there is a bigger lesson to be learned, one that you won’t see if you spiral and lose sight of the bigger picture.
The biggest lesson I have taken from all of my failures is to love myself; because no matter how smart you are, how many campaigns you build, or how many jokes you crack, there will always be people who don’t like you, and no matter what you do, it will never be enough. I don’t need to save the day, I don’t need to make you laugh, I don’t need to be the smartest person in the room. Just being me is enough, and I love me enough to make up for all of the people who won’t. There’s absolutely no failure in that.