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The failure chronicles

Call me buzz kill

by Laura Zigman  |  10357 views  |  18 comments  |       Rate this now! 

All good conversations start with a confession, so here’s mine: I feel like a failure.

You’ll notice that I said I feel like a failure rather than I am a failure because that is the nugget of what I’m going to be writing about here in The Failure Chronicles for Work It, Mom! How feeling like a failure is different from actually being a failure, and how anyone — no matter how un-failure-like they may appear to be to most people — can be consumed with the notion that they are a complete and utter loser.  Which is just one of the many good things about failure: anyone can succeed at it.

No one likes to talk about failure, it seems, except me. This is very strange since in almost every other discipline or field of study outside of psychology and human development focusing on failure is the one true route to success: improvements in engineering and computer design and product development are almost always the consequence of structural or system failures; medical and drug testing studies what doesn’t work in order to find out what does work; and the Harvard Business School case-study method of understanding what makes successful companies by studying unsuccessful companies has become the model for most business school curriculum. But for some reason, focusing on missed opportunities or mistakes made in our personal and professional lives is still taboo. Talking about personal failure in normal conversation brands someone instantly as a depressive, a downer, a buzz-killer, a drag: a neurotic anti-optimist who should spend less time focusing on failure and more time trying to be successful.

As strange as it may sound, what I hope to do here on Work It, Mom!  is the exact opposite:  I’m going to be spending more time focusing on failure and less time trying to be successful.  Because it’s my true belief (not to mention obsession) that focusing on failure -- the relativity of it (and the relativity of success), the upside of it (yes, there is an upside to failure), and the humor of it (yes, failure can be funny:  trust me, you’ll see) – ultimately leads to the unlikeliest of places:  success.

Failing seems to be what most working moms feel they’re doing most of the time, even if most of the time they’re doing an amazing job doing exactly the opposite:  not failing. But with all the responsibilities of motherhood [the naps the snacks the clothes the cooking the cleaning the calendar the school the soccer the gymnastics the trains the dinosaurs the Goldfish the Bratz the Webkinz] – and all the responsibilities of employment [the work the deadlines the panic the pressure the angst the bills the bills the bills did I mention the bills?] – not to mention all the responsibilities of coupledom [the marriage the marriage the marriage] it’s no wonder that most of us, most of the time, feel like we’ve failed at something every single day.

About the Author

Laura is the author of 4 novels (Animal Husbandry, Dating Big Bird, Her, and Piece of Work) but constantly feels like a failure. (

Read more by Laura Zigman

18 comments so far...

  • I understand what you mean about failure. In my eyes it isnt the feeling of failure but more sacrafice. You feel like a failure because of each sacrafice that is made to work and spend away from your child, to be somewhere else when your marriage is falling apart or failing itself. One thing I believe that is wonderful about all women is that they are honest about their feelings and emotions. There is only so much you can do as a person, individual and a mother & a wife. One day I think we realize that we give all our efforts and hard work to building our family, working and etc. I felt like a failure when I found out my sons were autisitc and then one day I realized it isnt my fault and that everything I do is an effort to building their self-esteem up and trying as hard as I can as mother, wife and woman to keep this family from drowning into failure. I dont know if anyone understand what Iam saying but Failure is such a stong word . :)

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Shelly on 26th March 2008

  • At a recent training, one of my colleagues said that the most powerful word for her is failure. She saw failure as a motivator, an opportunity for growth, a chance to learn.

    I'm not sure I can always keep such a zen perspective, but it seems to be something to work towards.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Kat on 25th January 2008

  • I think it depends on how you define failure. Too many women have the tendency to globalize and aggrandize normal "oops", or "Could'a done better" moments into FAILURE. "Missed opportunities and mistakes" are just that -- they are not failures.

    I guess I'm talking about the relativity of failure, aren't I? To me, failure occurs when you attempt a specific thing, and don't attain it. But a *specific* thing, not "I want to be a good mother", and anything less that that nebulous, ill-defined "goal" is failure. If that's not setting yourself up for failure, I don't know what is. It's both self-defeating and self-aggrandizing. And we have to KNOCK IT OFF.

    Make your goals specific. Suitably challenging, but specific and within the realms of reality. If you don't achieve a goal, you may, if you wish, count that as a failure, learn from it and move on. But if you learn from it -- it's not failure.

    It's when we're so afraid of failure, when we've tangled our goals in with our self-worth, so that a normal setback becomes something that we can't move past, that colours our attitude to ourselves and our capabilities ... then and only then is it truly failure.

    Otherwise, it's just being human, it's just learning from life. Which is what we're supposed to be doing, all our lives long.

    Falling short isn't failure. Wallowing is.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by MaryP on 10th November 2007

  • ah.. just last night i was feeling like a failure as a mother.. i work full time but only 40hrs in a typical week, 8-5. but i'm always tired! and last night i could not stay awake. my hubby was at work and the baby (8 1/2 mos) did not want to sleep. when i told my hubby this on the phone, he called his mom and had her come pick us up. so they watched the baby while i slept. i felt so horrible because the little bit of time i do have to spend with my daughter, i slept and let someone else care for her. i still feel bad today.

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Deeanna on 9th November 2007

  • Well, Laura. I guess in my mind how we perceive ourselves is a decision that we make each and every day. There is no secret trick in my opinion to feeling blessed and accomplished. I think it is as simple choosing to feel that way. Anybody can be successful if they decide to be. Can't they?

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by KathyHowe on 9th November 2007

  • I like your idea of creating a dialogue for our failures. I think it's really important that we recognize how many ways we categorize what we do as being failures and dispel the myth. I know in my heart that I am not a failure as a mom because we ate at Mcdonald's last night instead of preparing that healthy organic meal I had planned, but I was just too damn tired! I just have to let go of the guilt...the hot salty goodness of the fries helped!

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by unkeptmomof3 on 9th November 2007

  • I think you are completely right. I like to think of everything compared to how you would make a business succeed. If you put $10k into advertising and your ad campaign tanks you don't just sweep it under the rug and move on. You analyze it and figure how to improve and succeed the next time. I think people should take the same approach in their lives.

    I don't know who said this quote or how it goes exactly, but it's to your point exactly...

    "No one plans to fail; they fail, to plan."

    I just realized that you can interpret this two ways. First, you fail b/c you didn't plan. Or, as I interpret it, you fail in order to start's all in the comma...can't wait to read more in your column!

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Carla on 9th November 2007

  • Wow, Kathy, I so wish I had your neuro-psychological profile! A very healthy way to live, with a failure-free mind. Please be a big voice in the on-going conversation on failure -- by which I mean, please tell us how not to feel like failures, too!

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Laura Zigman on 8th November 2007

  • Hi Leandra,

    Yet another perfect point about the culture of failure and how, in the realm of motherhood - working or otherwise -- the message is that we are always failing. No matter what we do. I just wrote a piece about "Failing at Cancer" and it's all about how you can't win there either -- no matter what you do, you are still blamed for getting it or not surviving it. Same here. Much more to come and really looking forward to hearing your thoughts...

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Laura Zigman on 8th November 2007

  • Dear Coach Annemarie --

    I love what you said about failure being about "finding out." My point exactly (except of course that you were the one to put it so perfectly) about failure being good. More to come -- and so glad you're going to be part of the conversation!

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Laura Zigman on 8th November 2007

  • Note: I'm more than a little technology-challenged (a big failure in math: I got an "11" on math final in junior year of high school), so I'm just getting the hang of how to respond to these comments. And don't think I'm "pretending" to be a "failure" here for extra authenticity! I really am confused!!

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Laura Zigman on 8th November 2007

  • Hi Mandy, Thanks for your comment and I'm so glad you "get" failure. Part of the conversation is going to be about how, as you said, failure can be a good thing. Now, I'm still not sure why it was good that I (essentially) failed my SATs but I'm going to try to figure it out....Looking forward to hearing more from you!

    Flag as inappropriate Posted by Laura Zigman on 8th November 2007