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Failure -- Does Size Matter?

August 28, 2017

 

I am a fraud. A fake. A poser. Who the hell am I? Where do I get off spouting off about failure? Just some self-pitying lap of luxury bullshitter who thinks he can talk about it? What makes me some failure “expert”?? Am I even a failure?

 

 

[SCENE]

A dingy waiting room full of listless patrons. There is a large sign above a counter: “Department of Failure Registration”. One of the fluorescent lights flickers above the main counter. A dour middle aged man speaks to patrons while he chews absentmindedly on a wooden coffee stirrer.

 

Man:

NEXT!

 

A slight-framed Asian man, eyes gazing at the floor, approaches the counter.

 

Man:

Name?

 

Asian Male:

Oh uh Le…Leonard

 

Man:

[scribbling on form]

Class?

 

Leonard:

I’m…I’m sorry?

 

Man:

[annoyed]

CLASS? What class of failure?

 

Leonard:

Oh, um…what are my…what are my choices?

 

Man:

[looks up, takes coffee stirrer out of his mouth and points it at Leonard]

Listen, pal. You see these folks in the waiting room behind you? They’re all failures just like you. They’re trying to register just like you. Me? I gotta write all you failing sad sacks down in my book and categorize ya. So if you need a little extra time, why don’t you sit back down and let the next guy up?

 

Leonard:

No, no! I’ve been waiting months now to try to get here. Please. Just tell me what my choices are.

 

[Both men stare each other down, one with bowed head, the other impatient but finally giving in...]

 

Man:

Familial, marital, romantic, spiritual, career, financial, athletic, competitive, alcoholi—

 

Leonard:

Ooo! Career. Let’s go with career.

 

Man:

Well all right, then, now we can get somewhere.

[Fills in form then skips several pages]

Ok, all right then…career, career…Ah here we go. Ok, first what was the career?

 

Leonard:

Physician.

 

Man:

Specialty?

 

Leonard:

Vascular Surgery.

 

Man:

Ok then. So next comes subclass of failure…Disciplinary - that’s like defrauding Medicare or prescribing yourself painkillers.

 

Leonard:

Wow, no.

 

Man:

Willpower? Ya know like an addiction, maybe a little hanky panky with an assistant back in the ol’ exam rooms?

 

Leonard:

Whoa no, no way!

 

Man:

Malpractice?

 

Leonard:

Nope

 

Man:

You sure? Never cut off the wrong guy’s, you-know-what?

 

Leonard:

What? No that’s not the kind of surgery I…

 

Man:

Bad Patient Outcomes?

 

Leonard:

No, I was actually a pretty good surge…

 

Man:

Practice Failure- Not enough patients, not enough referrals, not enough cash

 

Leonard:

I mean now that you mention it I could have been a bit more successful…

 

Man:

Ok so we’ll say “Career Failure, Subclass Practice Failure”. That means we gotta fill out a Schedule B, “Degree of Failure, Subsection: Cash Flow”

 

Leonard:

Well, like, my practice was just one part of the prob…

 

Man:

[clearly not listening]

Ok, tell me if any of these apply to you. Foreclosure, re-po man, gambling debts, bad real estate deals, embezzlement…

 

Leonard:

No, no, no, no, aaaaaand, no.

 

Man:

So how bad off were you. Student loan debt?

 

Leonard:

Paid off

 

Man:

But you were a failure, right? You failed at Surgery or so you say. So what happened? You hit unemployment and then what? How’s your family getting by?

 

Leonard:

Well, I mean, we’re doing ok, actually. You see my wife is still quite successful. But you know it’s still stressful, what with the kids both being in Private School and all.

 

Man:

[looks up, takes off glasses, chews angrily on coffee stirrer]

Hey, buddy. You sure you’re at the right place? I mean all these folks in here they got it really bad, you know? They’re all on the skids. That’s why it’s the “Department of Failures”, not just the “Department of Disappointments”. You sound like you’re just down on yourself a bit. You don’t look disabled in any way. You didn’t get kicked out of your profession. You must be pretty smart. Just go out and stop feeling sorry for yourself, ya know? I got a lot of folks waiting behind you. NEX—

 

Leonard:

No no! Wait I am a real failure! Lemme explain. I was supposed to BE somebody. That’s what people told me. I went to all the great schools. I’ve let so many people down. I let my family down. I let myself down.

 

Man:

Awwww, is the poor doctor sad he ain’t doctoring no more. You know how many Physician Burnout cases we get around here? Sob Story Registrations are down the hall, pal, third door on the left. NEX––

 

Leonard:

Wait! It’s not just me feeling sorry for myself…uh, uh…I had mental disease! Depression! I had severe depression! I…I was crippled by it. I almost…I came really close to…Look I just KNOW I’m a failure ok?

 

Man:

[Looking unconvinced]

What have you been doing since you quit?

 

Leonard:

Well I, started a blog. Yeah it’s a blog all about failure. All kinds of failures. It’s kind of my brand.

 

Man:

Hold on. You’re a blogger? Jesus, why didn’t you say so in the first place?

[Closing file, handing papers to Leonard]

Upstairs, 4th floor. Knock on the door that says “Total Losers” and give them this. They’ll know exactly what to do.

[Cranes neck around Leonard]

NEXT!!

 

[End scene]

 

 

Fraud. Fake.

 

Ok, so the Department of Failure Registration obviously only exists in my head. It is however a fantastic display of my new night school class: Playwright 101. No one, aside from my therapist and my career coach, not a single person has ever questioned why I consider myself a failure. I have an amazing support network of friends and family. Not a single one of those good people has ever even called me a failure, let alone tried to classify it. They’ve argued quite to the contrary. Despite the abrupt end to my career, it was a successful career. That I left my career mostly on my own terms is actually proof of that. And no one that I know has ever said that I, personally, am a failure simply because of the paths my life has taken.

 

Not a failure.

 

A sham. A wannabe.

 

The fact that I have friends, family, resources (like health insurance for therapists and a shitload of Zoloft) should be some sign I’m not a complete failure. I am privileged to have so much support, friendship and love, regardless of how badly I feel about myself. So many people in this world  have nothing in comparison. They feel truly alone, truly isolated. They bear their struggles in solitude without help or treatment or love or so much as a somebody to shoot the breeze with. Are they failures just for having fewer friends? I am happily married. I have two brilliant kids. My dog is cute as hell and gives me all the unconditional love I could ever need. Does this abundance of all things warm and fuzzy make me any less of a failure? Am I ACTUALLY [gasp] a success?

 

Not a failure.

 

Who the hell does this guy think he is?

 

I am financially very well off. Mind you, not what these days passes for Wealthy, but definitely well off. Let’s face it, I grew up the son of two doctors in a small Ohio town that had a pretty low cost of living. Then my physician wife and I enjoyed the fruits of our own two-physician family. I’ve had it pretty good. Sure I didn’t make millions through the stock market, nor is that my Ferrari in the Doctor’s Parking Lot. Heck I don’t even own one of the many Teslas there. I drive a beat-up VW convertible that’s a decade old if you must know. The point is that I’m not rolling in cash, but I am not a financial failure by any stretch. My struggles don’t come close to those of folks facing true adversity. I’m not swimming in credit card debt, or very much debt at all in fact. While I did in fact quit my day (Surgeon) job, my wife’s career is a wonderful success. So much so, that for the time being I can live in relative comfort and type blog entries while sipping iced mochas at a local coffee shop. Others struggle to make ends meet, live paycheck to paycheck, or face financial collapse. Me? Nope. Social and financial safety nets galore. I’ve only ever been hungry when I forget to preheat my oven before baking a frozen chicken pot pie. I hate when I do that. I’ve never spent a day without shelter. The clothes on my back are only shabby because I’ve reached that stage of Dad-hood where I’m unable to distinguish “acceptable” from “Oh God, Dad, please don’t wear that anymore.”

 

Not. A. Failure.

 

A loser maybe, but not a failure.  

 

So who or what is a failure? While the Department of Failure Registration does not exist, a classification system for failure certainly could. We all know of so many types of failure in our lives. Most of them are just speed bumps on the roads we call our lives. Some cause permanent detours. But one person’s failure could be another person’s envy. Take this blog post for instance. Am I really trying to state my case for my own failures or is this whole thing a thinly veiled “humble brag”? An attempt to fish for compliments using self-deprecation as bait? Who decides what constitutes a failure?

 

Well one glaringly easy answer would be that it’s not a matter of how poor you are or how sad your story is. Instead it’s a matter of expectations. Or rather the difference between expectation and results. If my child comes home with a 33% on one of his tests he A) tries to hide it but knows that’s a losing battle because everything’s posted on-line, and then he B) gets many words from his parents who are not mad just disappointed. And mad. Who are we kidding, really, really mad. That’s a straight up F in just about anybody’s book. But take that 33% and apply it to the game of baseball. The Major Leaguer that goes an entire career and manages to succeed only 33% of the time when stepping up to the plate is considered great and a Hall of Fame contender. The 66% of his at bats (numbering in the tens of thousands) in which he FAILED to hit safely and got an out? Not considered a failure at all.

 

“Ok Full Stop, Leonard. My mind was just NOT-blown. WHAT The Hell? That’s your great secret? All of life is graded on a curve? You can get a 33% on your exam if everyone else is getting below 30? Wow that seems meta-deep, Leonard. Take you a lifetime to come up with that nugget? Strong work.” [You ever notice the voice in my head is a bit of a sarcastic ass? Hmph. You should try living with him]

 

But seriously, though, who gets to set that curve? Who determines when a 33 is good or bad? Is failure not a question of absolute values but rather only how wide a gulf exists between hope and reality? In mathematical terms we could call this the delta F (The difference between expectation and failure). But again, who sets the parameters and limits of the function? Why on the math test is the expectation of excellence a 100% (or at least a 90% for an A-minus–I’m a mostly reasonable tiger-dad), but for baseball hitters 33% is the benchmark of potential immortality? (I’ll lay off the math analogies now, don’t worry. BUT I reserve the right to continue using baseball analogies). And is failure always a relative measurement?

 

How about a different way to look this? Are there examples of absolutes that under any circumstance MUST be considered a failure? A mission to space in which all lives are loss will likely always be considered a failure. Even still there can be room for debate. Say that there were a clear error on the part of the astronauts. They would still be considered heroes. The folks back on earth (or wherever we are in the future) will endlessly investigate who failed. They will point fingers, they will reconstruct events, they will pore over telemetry data and computer simulations. They will file official reports assigning fault to SOMEONE. The astronauts will be heroes but SOMEONE must have failed. Even in this supposedly absolute case, there might be room for relative blame.

 

So now what if we dialed it back to something more down to earth (pun intended)? Let’s say a car crash. Do we call a drunk driver who causes the death of others in the car a failure? Of course we do, and we even arrest the driver. A police report will originate from the incident, and even some forensic CSI types might get involved. But in the end, we will know who failed in this scenario: the drunk driver. Astronauts and drunk drivers. those are some seemingly easy absolutes. But what about the in-betweens? Where along the slope does the failure go from “obvious screw up, FAIL” to, “well maybe it was understandable, NOT GREAT”, to “boy, they did everything they could NICE TRY”, to “wow they were true heroes weren’t they? SUCCESS IN FAILURE” All of that middle ground is the fertile soil for my desired discussions for this website.

 

I’ve had this discussion with a career coach, my therapist, and my wife. In the worst of my struggles with my midlife career change, I eventually became fascinated with what makes a failure a failure. Am I a failure? As a father? As a husband? As a physician? As a surgeon? As a person? In whose eyes are we asking? Can my current number of friends and loving family be one of those absolutes that automatically disqualifies me from calling myself a failure? Can my current net worth as the son and spouse of a total of three physicians also be an absolute that bars me from calling myself a failure? Well the fact that I’m in therapy can clue you in a bit. A preview: much of my self-perception of failure comes from a crap ton of baggage, depression, and self hatred. But that will have to wait for other blog posts. For now, let’s just say that I have my own personal reasons to want to talk about failure. All kinds of failure, mine and others’.

 

So am I a sham? A fraud? If I am, does that mean I’ve failed at failing? (My God I can’t do anything right). I would argue that the answer is not a yes or a no, and that is the whole point of all of this discussion. Stick with me, will you? Let’s dive deep. There’s lots of failure to talk about. Absolutely relatively speaking.

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