On The Windfalls of Failure
When I was 27 years old, the life I’d carefully constructed for myself fell almost spectacularly apart.
I was a foreign correspondent for a major publication, and by all accounts it was a dream job: six-figure salary, ex-pat benefits, a hefty expense account. The satisfaction of knowing my byline was read by thousands. When I told people what I did for a living and where I did it, I got impressed nods and verbal kudos: “You must be a good writer,” they’d say. I’d smile modestly. I was a good writer–that much I knew. But these exchanges confirmed much more than that for me: that I was a fast-tracker; a go-getter. Someone aiming high, and getting there. In short, everything I’d ever hoped to do and be.
Then, one day, it all tumbled down. Called into my bureau chief’s office, I sat down with my pen and notepad, expecting to be given my next assignment. Instead, I was given marching orders. “I don’t know how to say this,” he said, “so I’ll just go ahead and say it. We’ve decided to let you go.”
He hesitated a moment. Then—meaning (I’m sure) to be kind, he added: “I don’t know what your calling in life is going to be. But I’m pretty sure that it’s not going to be in journalism.”
In the silence that followed I heard the crash and tinkle of my entire existence, shattering. We went through the next steps—my severance package; planning a month-long exit frame which would include training my replacement. It all seemed hazy and gray. The one thought I had with startling clarity was this: “It’s happening. The worst thing that’s happened to me in my life. It’s happening now.”
As I walked out of the building that afternoon, each step felt like a freefall. Normally I’d spend my lunch hour reading up on news or re-drafting a story, but none of that made any sense now that I no longer had a job to do. I’d been flung off the fast track. I was no longer a correspondent. It seemed possible that I wasn’t even a good writer after all–that my life’s passion, and the one talent I’d never doubted in myself amounted to no more than “beginner’s luck.”
After wandering for a while I finally called my parents from a payphone, even though it was three a.m. in the U.S. My father listened quietly as I choked out my story. Then he said something I still remember often: “You’ve been chewed up and spit out by life’s meat-grinder. It’s not the first time it will happen to you. And in ten or fifteen years, this won’t even seem like a big deal.”
In the bleak weeks that followed, this prediction seemed hard to believe. Even as I applied for and was quickly offered three exciting new jobs in writing (one of them with the same publication, but the television arm of it), I couldn’t escape the sense that my failure wasn’t just that—a failure—but a crushing confirmation of all my inadequacies, both professional and personal alike. In my head, I lived and re-lived the curt half-hour of my demise, analyzing every moment, every keystroke that had led up to it. Going over and over that tactless, point-blank condemnation: I don’t know what your life’s calling is going to be. But I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be in journalism. In my new city, at my new job, I compared myself to my new work colleagues and felt like a fraud. I was certain I’d never succeed at anything again.
And yet in those rare moments when I was really honest with myself, there was also a sheepish sense of relief. The truth was, while I’d worked hard to get to the high place from which I’d fallen–graduating magna-cum-laude from an elite college where I was one of the paper’s editors; cutting my teeth at a fast-paced international wire service; obtaining a fancy Masters in International Affairs with a specialty in economics—there had also been a growing sense that this “dream job” was from someone else’s dream. It was a feeling I’d had even on the plane flight back from my final interview for The Big Job, when it hit me that they were going to make me an offer. A big one. I should have been elated. Instead, I was just anxious—as though I were stepping onto an express train headed away from my desired destination. And in retrospect, that was exactly what I was doing.
Here’s the thing I hadn’t let myself admit–not to my interviewers, not to my parents, not even to myself: I’d never had a burning desire to be a journalist. My first love has always been fiction, and what I’ve always wanted most of all was to write it. Nonfiction has simply never spoken to me in the same way. What it did do was offer security, a clearer path to what most people can comfortably call “success.” Which, of course, was precisely why I chose it–or (as it now seems in retrospect) let it choose me. But even in the midst of it my most exciting professional moments, I never really looked forward to my job in those days–at least, not as much as I looked forward to my long commute to and from it. My colleagues used the time to pore through news stories, which is probably what I should have been doing too. Instead, I lost myself in Graham Greene and A.S. Byatt and Michael Ondaatje, because those were the stories that really moved me. And in the months prior to being fired I’d been quietly but increasingly unhappy; feeling unable to engage with the material I was writing, and unable to connect with my colleagues who could. I’d even fantasized about quitting the Big Job, moving back in with my parents and trying to flesh out an idea for a novel
Of course, I never could have actually done that. For one thing, they were (understandably) appalled when I half-jokingly gave voice to the idea. Besides, who voluntarily leaves a dream job?
Still, as I made my way through the next four years in television, then into grad school and (simultaneously) into my marriage, I came to realize that having the “worst thing” happen to you can sometimes be the best thing you can hope for. Without failing, I’d almost certainly have kept plugging along in a career that never really suited or satisfied me– a fate far worse than being served the odd pink slip. More importantly, I would never have had an excuse to discover both my true talent and my true dream job—weaving research and narrative into historical novels, which in turn speak to fellow fiction-lovers across the world–maybe even on their commutes.
So in the end, my bureau chief turned out to be right: my life’s calling wasn’t in journalism. My dad was right as well: I’d indeed been chewed up and spit out by life’s meat-grinder, and it wasn’t the first time it would happen. Not by a long shot. He was wrong about one thing, though: nearly twenty years on that failure still seems like a very big deal. It was the reason I met my husband, moved to Brooklyn, left journalism for an MFA, and started a family I adore. It was the reason I wrote and published my first novel, and more recently my second, and am both engaged in my work and eager to get to it each day. In short, it was catalyst that propelled me—albeit kicking and screaming–into the life I was probably really meant for.
I can only hope my next failure brings with it such a windfall.