An Open Letter to Everyone Afraid of Failure

feature image via shutterstock

Dear recent gradu-queer and any queer on the struggle bus,

Welcome to this shit show called adulthood! (If anyone tells you adulthood is not some kind of a shit show, I give you permission to bite them on the nose for lying.) Perhaps you’ve recently bid farewell to some university or college, with or without your sanity, self-esteem, and/or personal values. Or, perhaps, you’ve long ago hung up your cap and gown, or you left “higher” education without the pomp and circumstance. Or, maybe you never fit quite neatly into the post-high school narrative. Somewhere in any and all of these options, you’re supposed to have found a job or degree, and the world makes you feel worthless if you don’t have either or both. It’s fascinating how in the blink of an eye, people stop asking you what you want to be when you grow up and start asking “What are you doing with your life?” It’s terrifying how both of those questions bind your value to dollar signs.

Especially if you don’t have a career plan or degree trajectory mapped out, the “What are your plans?” question can sound more like a death knell than a polite inquiry into the state of your life. That loaded question is kind of a death knell insomuch as it values your contributions to a capitalist infrastructure more than it values your personhood. I am writing to you today to say your humanity — your individuality, your sense of self-worth, the life experiences that bring you to your next inhale, the way you chew with your mouth open, the way you own your truths (or don’t) — matter far more than how conveniently you fit into an economic system that was created to oppress you. So with that statement in mind, I invite you to try failing.

As a Black, first-generation American dyke, I usually roll my eyes at the notion of failure. I pretend that I don’t have time for failure (as if failure happens only when I make time for it). I will actually go out of my way to chastise myself for failing. We queers may resist or fight the possibility of failure, especially if we’re additionally marginalized by being a woman, or trans/gender non-conforming, or a person of color, or poor, or undocumented, or disabled, or any combination of the above, or any category I left out. I believe that we bridle at this possibility of failure because we feel that in the eyes of the world we are meant to be failures. In that respect, we are failures; however I’d like to offer the solace that this failure is exactly what we’ve used to survive. In “Capitalism, the Family, and the Anus,” Guy Hocquenghem observes, “Capitalism turns its homosexuals into failed normal people, just as it turns its working class into an imitation of the middle class.” We queers grind against the System’s norms for sex, sociability, family, power, love, consumption, and reproduction. We’re construed as failures, but we’re far from broken.

In this “failure” of our being, we create room for other imaginings of our futures and perhaps even as much as an anti-capitalist existence. In “The Queer Art of Failure,” J. Halberstam insists, “The queer art of failure turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable. It quietly loses and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art, and for being.” Think of all the ways you — and we, queer people — have continually created, destroyed, and rebuilt ourselves and our communities in the sacred act of honoring our humanity. How can you be anything less than magic?

via Tumblr Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera, two trans women who created new imaginings of a future through their activism and participation in the Stonewall Riots

via Tumblr
Marsha P. Johnson & Sylvia Rivera, two trans women who created new imaginings of a future through their activism and participation in the Stonewall Riots

So sit with me a moment and meditate on these two familiar questions: what do you want to be when you “grow up?” What are you doing/do you want to do with your life? Sit with yourself, your love, your horrors, your victories, and your losses. Prioritize the answers to those questions that are not explicitly connected to a degree or career. Ask yourself these questions every day and all the time until you believe your failure. Your failure is usually the most honest parts of yourself.

We don’t all have the same “access” to failure, and you would most certainly have to bite me on the nose if I said so. Society gives some bodies more permission to contradict the norm than others. Unfortunately, until you and I, and all marginalized folks destroy Capitalism, we’ll probably need jobs and degrees to a certain extent. Also, I’m no televangelist and meditating on the aforementioned questions with me will not guarantee you a job or degree. However, I want to invite you to push against Society’s command to see yourself as worthy only when you serve the economic interests of the State. We’re taught that we must run from anything that is seen as “not-success,” even if that endeavor actually means standing still in the static of our own boring mediocrity.

Be mindful of the way you may compulsively sell yourself to others, of the embarrassed tone that may creep in your voice when you explain that you don’t have a plan yet, of the way you qualify what you’re doing with “just this job…” or “only that class…” Please be gentle with yourself always. In spite of what they may say, most humans are still in the process of searching for life. You are a beautiful, perfectly imperfect person whose worth is not monetary. Failure isn’t the enemy; fear of failure is.

Love,

A Fellow Failure

P.S. People with jobs, degrees, or both, let’s think of other questions to ask people than, “Where do you work?” or “When do/did you go to school?” They’re boring questions anyway, ok? Ok.

Helen McDonald is a 20-something Black lesbian feminist living off of pizza, social justice and a lil snark. By day, she's a community educator, teaching young people about healthy relationships. She also discusses the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality on her personal blog sapphosistah.tumblr.com and is a contributing writer at ElixHer.com

Helen has written 40 articles for us.

70 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this article. Even though I try every day to remind myself that bullshit success is bullshit and that I am *not* a failure because I don’t make a lot of money or have a fancy job, it’s still hard to believe it given the world we live in and the multiple messages we receive from our capitalist society. Embracing failure is a big middle finger to the capitalist dream I need to do it more. I’ll send this to my brother who is on struggle bus having dropped out of his MA, I think this will help. Thanks and peace

  2. As an undergrad student who has recently switched majors from something that would give me a high paying medical field job to something that would give me a low paying social service job, I have gotten a lot of confused looks and reminders that “you’re not gonna make a lot of money doing that”. I definitely needed the reminder my net worth doesn’t equal my self-worth, thank you Helen!

  3. Thank you for this. This is exactly what I needed to see today on the front page. I think when people ask me now what I am doing after school I’m just going to say: “that is a loaded question that pursues the same capitalist infrastructure that was created to oppress me, thank you.”

    • That question always makes me want to describe the human I want to see naked at that moment, which is rarely something I’m willing to do in the meeting-new-people-conversation. I really dislike its use in the what-is-your-fav-leisure-activity-or-unpaid-work way. It also reminds me horribly of college career offices…

      What do you like to think about? What do you like to create?

  4. I could have used this 6 or so years ago when I dropped/failed out of University at the one thing I thought I wanted to be ever sense I was 10 years old. When I dropped out, I had what I like to call an “early life crisis”. I didn’t have a back up plan and no idea of what I wanted to do with my-self. I ended up going to technical school and found a career in a supper niche industry and I actually love waking up and going to work everyday.

  5. Can I still take something from this even if I haven’t failed? (And by not failing I mean on a societal level because I happen to have an extensive 5 year life plan that involves 2 grad degrees and being the first person in my family to graduate college and making enough money to pay for everyone’s everything….) Personally I think I’ve failed miserably on an individual level and at being happy since at the end of my 60 work week I crawl into bed crying and daydream about being able to runaway to San Francisco and get a barista girlfriend and write all day….

    • I get this so much. I think except for some rare and lucky people, success in the school/job system today involves battening down the hatches and launching yourself at the system like a sealed space pod, at a great personal expense you discover later.

      I actually do succeed well according to the established measuring sticks, but at the end of every semester it’s like I wake up from a bad dream and I find out my body is in terrible shape and I have inexplicable urges to kill myself over forgetting ingredients at the grocery store.

      I just tell myself that these jaw-clenched years will pass. We’ll have more time someday soon.

      • I’m glad I am not the only one….seriously had a meltdown over breaking necklace at the end of last semester…for like hours when it should not have been a big deal. I totally feel like a nutcase most of the time anymore.

        could someday come a little faster please? Can we arrange that?

  6. I just graduated from undergrad (studying dance and English) and definitely have on and off concerns about my “ability to get hired”. So I’m packing up my bags and moving to London to do a masters program in dance…without knowing how or if this whole dancing thang is going to work out. It’s scary. This post was very comforting, so thank you for that.

    As for questions, how about:

    “What moves you? Who are you? How do you like to spend your day? What do you consider home? What is the title and theme of your imaginary cooking show?”

    XX!

    • A preemptive ‘Welcome to London’ for you, and congratulations on your masters programme. There’s a ton of creative stuff going on round here – I hope you find something that moves you.

  7. Crying because I needed this essay years ago when I realized that I spent my career-building years working overseas for peanuts and then failing at getting a masters degree (but succeeding at student debt) and I’ve been feeling bad about both those things for so long. Also I totally use those qualifiers before describing my current job, even though I love it. So thanks.

  8. I’m presently taking on an enormous amount of debt to go to law school at 30 yrs old. I could sell my soul, work at a firm, and live large for the rest of my life — which I’m getting a lot of pressure from family to do.

    But I’m going to follow my heart and dreams and make hardly any more money than I was before to help people who get fucked by the criminal justice system to get a little less fucked or as much unfucked as possible, whatever the case may be.

    To me that feels like success.

  9. Thanks for the post & the comments. I have so much bouncing around in my head & heart. I have appreciated my education and various jobs from gardener, landscaper, doing ‘rough carpentry’ and all the fun, sweaty, god I am so tired from this day, but ‘damn that looks fine’ proud of my work and clean sweat and muscles screaming… And I was a kindergarten teacher where Ibfelt the need to dress all femme and feel tortured inside to have to do so much not true to myself gotta fit in to the mainstream. Anyway, I am older, wiser but still struggle… Maybe there is no real true calling or maybe we are all enough just to be who we are… A redefining of success. I was actually a butch mommy daddy staying home with two daughters once upon a time, reading “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus” to the girls, and wondering why I was letting some Pigeon Drive my bus…. Some days I do believe it’s enough to live truly whole and human & to love and respect ourselves, shout, celebrate… Stick together and keep on building the queer girl network.
    Thanks for letting me rant… Love you all … On the Bus!!

  10. I feel this, as a person with a decent job that doesn’t exactly match my degree. So the questions become “what are you going to do next?” Can’t right now, with my entry level salary that keeps me very well off thankyouverymuch, be enough? Must I always be justifying what I’m doing for some far off long term goal?

    And then things happen like a coworker’s job gets eliminated and she’s informed that she’s being transferred to a different department and a different office and if she doesn’t like it well she can just quit. (Which hypothetically happened approximately six hours ago).

    And that answers your question. That no, the here and now is not necessarily enough. What ARE you going to do next? Because that might be you tomorrow.

    I will try though. Answering that question in terms of things other than my job.

  11. I guess this doesn’t really apply to me but i’m hoping i don’t fail out of college again. I keep going and dropping out as soon as it gets tough. I feel like it has taken me FOREVER to get my damn associates =/

    • I struggled a lot in undergrad. It was half not giving a fuck and half scared that if I tried, I wouldn’t do well and then what was the point of trying in the first place when I could have used that time to have fun? So even though I graduated on time (with a bunch of summer school throughout), I sabotaged. A lot. That was a really tough thing to face, going back to school now, several years later. I was scared that I would fall into old patterns or fall right on my face.

      Maybe this doesn’t at all relate to what you meant though.

      Anyway, it doesn’t matter how long it takes. If you want it, don’t give up. Do it one class at a time. Or tell yourself that you’re going to power through a semester or a year no matter what. Or take a long time off, get right with yourself, and try later. Act with purpose.

  12. I’m such a failure. I was a prodigy. After I graduated high school (early), I was supposed to be a world-renowned classical composer. Or at least, like, a LAWYER, or SOMETHING. I failed at art school. I failed at university. I was a bright teenage kid in rooms full of adult genuises – what did anybody expect? Not perfectly understandable failure, apparently. I had never failed at anything before and I felt like my whole existence was being wiped away. I realized that I had been miserable my whole life, and that playing the music I was supposedly loved had never taken that pain away.

    Now I make okay money, at a job that I don’t hate, that I can leave behind me at the end of the day. It doesn’t consume my identity or my life. I ride my bikes, I garden, I play with my rats, I go out into the woods for long stretches of times and talk to no-one. I organize, I march, I get arrested for causes I believe in and don’t worry about sullying my potentially famous name. It isn’t that kind of name anymore. Nobody expected me to be a bisexual transgender communist failure – but I’m happiest this way.

  13. Thank you so much for your article, it could not have come at a better time for me; I’ve been really struggling with my current situation and scared about my future and how the fuck will I get a decent job with my lack of qualifications and feeling like a total fuck up for having gotten myself in my situation in the first place and it’s been crushing my self worth so much. So I thank you for the bit of comfort and light I got from your articles. Lately it’s been hard not see myself as a total failure even though deep inside I know I have so many awesome qualities that are more important that society’s view of success..and I agree stop asking people about studies & jobs it’s such a fucking boring topic anyway!! Talk to me about travels and dreams and revolutions <3

  14. Thank you so much for this. As a woman who isn’t conventionally attractive, doesn’t make people comfortable easily, and is queer, I have long grappled with the need to justify my existence by finishing my undergrad degree and then getting more degrees. But the related needs to justify my existence and not feel useless are part and parcel of this idea that people need to be useful within the destructive framework of our neoliberal society to have worth…which is, in technical terms, a metric fuckton of bullshit. Failure in the way it’s defined by our society isn’t always a terrible thing. I have failed in ways that have made me a better, more compassionate human, honestly. And I consider that to be way more important than being the golden child with multiple degrees by my age (25) that my extended family always expected me to be.

  15. Thank you so much for this. I have been struggling so much lately with anxiety about what I’m doing with my education (so far all I’ve done is hesitantly declare an English major while still obsessing over every other option) and my lack of a plan for the future (especially one that is actually seen as an acceptable or successful choice). I’ve been really worried about trying to navigate choosing and trying to succeed in a career while dealing with mental illness and other things in my life that make me feel like a failure. I’ve been panicking about all the pressure I keep feeling around me to put all my energy and effort into work and productivity and I could not have seen this post at a better time. Thank you so much for this perspective. I guess I’m hoping that I can learn to be a better failure at this system so that I can put more of that energy into myself and trying to create the best life for me.

    • I could have written almost exactly this. I’m constantly questioning my major & desperately trying to figure out the answer to “what do I want to do with me life.” It gives me incredible anxiety and no one around me seems to get it. People express this attitude that it doesn’t really matter, just pick a major and complete it. But it’s huge amounts of debt and the rest of my life they’re so casually talking about. It frustrates me. It frustrates me that no one seems to understand the intense struggle I go through that leaves me in tears at times.

  16. YES YES YES YES YES YES YES!!!!!!!

    The question I’d like to ask myself more often is ‘how am I going to make my failure SPECTACULAR?’. Like if I’m going to fail, I may as well have a lot of fun doing it.

    And I think a more interesting question to ask people instead of the usual job/plans questions is ‘If you were the benevolent dictator of the world, what would your first decree be?’, or maybe, ‘How has your life experience / degree prepared you for being the ruler of the world, and why would you be a good ruler because of it?’.

    I’ve never been happier than when I’m getting up at dawn, riding my bike every day, working as a casual surf teacher and labourer and not worrying about ‘progressing myself’ or a career, or prospects or anything but the beautiful ache in my muscles at the end of each day, the sun on my skin, the sand between my toes and every night eating my dinner as a picnic in the park with my girlfriend.

  17. I had a breakthrough at the beginning of this year thanks to my mom ( <3 ). I'd successfully completed a BS, Master's and PhD without a break, was suddenly unemployed looking for work in academia, and I was going to my first interview for a post-doc.

    I started freaking out about not being good enough and my mom said "you know, you've been doing great so far, but it's okay if you fail for a while".

    And suddenly I realised how liberating that thought was, that I was looking at the prospect of being unemployed for a while and that was OK.

  18. As someone who is looking for my next job, this made me recognize the pressure I feel to find a “respectable” job. I’ve also been really concerned with finding something that has stability. All probably connected to my fear of failure. This is something I really needed to hear right now, thanks.

  19. When I was in undergrad, I told my father that I wanted to go to graduate school to become a therapist. He told me I should rethink my decision because grad school is expensive and therapists don’t make much money.

    Now, I work at a financial services company. I hate going to work. I feel drained before 9AM. But, I make good money, especially for a 24 year old. This good money got me into consumer debt after being poor for most of my life (food stamps while I was in college, using $6k Stafford loans and part time minimum wage jobs to get by poor). Having money definitely makes you go “oooh!! STUFF!”in a terrifying way. But I will never have to wonder if I should’ve taken the high paying office job instead, because I know it’s not worth it.

    I got accepted to grad school. I’m going to be a therapist! And start out making significantly less than I do right now.

    Worth it 🙂

  20. Thank you for this. The obnoxious questions that make me feel the need to justify my existence are so real. Looking back, I think those questions where a huge part of what made me pursue something that wasn’t right for me at all, which led to me currently feeling like a failure. Except I have no desire to trade places with the people asking me those questions, the ones who are so eager to tell me about the things they do that would make me absolutely miserable.

  21. This is very in tune with my vibe lately- thank you for such a great read. I just had two family parties very close together and because I’m finishing my PhD soon, I was asked ‘what’s your plan?’ ‘Any job news?’ A LOT. I’m the only one in my family to study this long and my family don’t have a lot of money so I feel the pressure is on me to look after them. This article reminded me to lean in to the possibility of just sitting at one of those parties with my wife and being enough.

    • My hippie immediate family don’t out any pressure on me but I still feel the need to take care of everyone and that takes money. Ooooph I’m feeling that queer need to succeed and the push of monetary capitalism these days!

  22. Hiiiii queerness and failure and lesbian visibility are the underpinnings of my MA art work (which I am ironically somehow not failing…but I’ll probably fail to make any money out of having the qualification) and I just want to thank you for passing on this amazing information to Autostraddle readers. I urge people to read The Queer Art of Failure it changed the way I look at the world and hence informed my artwork and made me feel like being a failure in the eyes of the heteronormative world was a freaking awesome thing. Embrace it!

  23. I really feel like this is something I needed to hear.

    A real brief summation of personal stuff: from about elementary school to middle school, I was “gifted”, but only because I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. I learned world capitals, state capitals, I abused the hell out of my copy of “Encarta Encyclopedia 2000”. The only thing I wasn’t gifted in was math and it came really difficult for me to wrap my mind around numbers but for a while, I was more advanced than everybody else in my class and it made me feel good. Then in high school, it was a matter of not having any of those learning aids anymore (We had moved and left a lot of that stuff behind) and the math stuff getting more and more prominent and not getting it made me feel like an idiot, that all the times people called me “smart” was just a fluke. So began a lot of needless beating myself up about stupid things. Anytime I’d let my mind explore something, I’d backpedal and go “Well…this is stupid anyway. Why am I spending so much time thinking about this?” or getting really angry at myself for bumping into things or dropping things, like that was proof I wasn’t really smart at all. (as if smart people DON’T drop things) I even end statements with “…but yeah. whatever.” or “…or something, I dunno.”, as if what I had to say about something was unimportant.

    All that is stuff I didn’t think about. It became so second-nature, one of my good friends pointed out that I put myself down a lot, especially when I’m talking about something I have an opinion about or feel passionate about. I go “but yeah, whatever.” to counteract myself getting too wrapped up in ‘unimportant’ things.

    Because I’ve spent so long at community college failing at my classes, that mentality got worse and worse. It didn’t matter that I was this smart person, I kept failing out of my math classes and worse still, my instructors would go “Why can’t you get this stuff? It’s EASY!” and then I’d miss something or end up learning how to do a formula wrong when the test came back and the grade would be abysmally low. It didn’t matter that I was smart when it came to art or science or literature or writing: the math was IMPORTANT, everything else was UNIMPORTANT. It took me way too long to get back to doing the creative things I love that I neglected because my education was supposed to be my top priority and what I was supposed to be focused on but I started to shy away from it because I was afraid to fail and prove I was really as stupid as I felt.

    (this wasn’t supposed to be this long, I swear) My point is…being afraid to try because I was afraid of failing meant I didn’t do much of anything. I didn’t write, I didn’t draw because I was afraid of it coming out wrong. I’ve been reading “The Artist’s Way” by Julia Cameron and trying to unlearn these subtle put-downs I use to keep from doing what I love, what I’m passionate about. One quote that I want to commit to memory from “Adventure Time” is “Dude, sucking at something is the first step to being sorta good at something.” 🙂

  24. “That loaded question is kind of a death knell insomuch as it values your contributions to a capitalist infrastructure more than it values your personhood.”

    oooh i needed this SO BADLY today, thank you for this!! in fact just moments ago i was musing on how i am sorely lacking in a kind of support network for folks seeking out “unconventional” life paths. i am unemployed right now – have been for the last 2 months – and having to constantly hear “what kind of job are you looking for?”/”what do you want to do with your life?” is wearing on the soul.

    ask better questions! how long can you talk to a new person without once talking about your jobs/careers/life paths? i want to talk about my favorite books and TV shows and my unending love for pizza, not the gaping existential hole of my unemployment.

  25. Thank you for writing this. I didn’t realize how much shame I had about my failures until right now. I just graduated after eight years of endless all-nighters, finals-induced-temper tantrums, and too many failed classes. A string of failures that led to a success. And now I’m ashamed again, looking for a “career” job, and wondering if the degree I picked was a mistake. I needed to hear this. Thank you.

  26. Thank you. sometimes i feel sad and try to envision a different world where i didn’t feel so strapped and in a cage, society-wise. capitalism is no good for wholesome living. this article cheered me up a bit and made me feel less self conscious. your writing is wonderful.

  27. When it comes to good alternative questions I have lots!
    Some of my favourites include:

    – what do you do for fun?
    – what was the most engrossing (or interesting) thing that you did last [day/week]?
    – best scar story? (better if you know the person)
    – have you ever fallen in love in a heartbeat?

  28. I created an account to comment on this post because I needed it so much.

    I’ve recently decided to leave my PhD program early (still getting a MS) and I’ve been struggling with the idea that I have failed 2-years-ago and 10-years-ago me. This is hitting so close to home with everything I’ve been talking to my therapist about too!

    I don’t know what I’m doing after this, but I know deep down I would suffer so much if I stayed in this program, and my fear of failure can’t stop me from leaving!

  29. I was excited to see this post but put off reading it for a while because I didn’t want to face my feelings… This was really really good and very helpful. My life completely derailed from the course I had planned about a year and a half ago, and since then I’ve struggled with shame about not having my life together and not having a plan (and really, really hated it when people asked me what my plan is). Thanks for reminding me that my worth is not based on my contributions to capitalism.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.