Monday, March 28, 2011


About ten years ago I applied to a private college in an effort to become an adult student.  My high school grades were not good, and I had no previous college credits to speak of; so they asked me to write an essay telling them why they should accept me as a student.

The theme of the essay I wrote was determination.  I told them that as an adult student I had experienced failure and had learned to pick myself up and try again.  I wrote that I was determined to make something of myself, and that I would not fail in my task.

It turns out that my words back then weren’t quite true.

Sure, I had known failure, just ask my mom about my high school report cards, she’ll tell you exactly how much failure I had experienced. I’d never failed at something I worked for though.  My failure was consistently due to lack of trying, and when I actually wanted something, I always achieved it.

Apperantly I still had a lesson to learn.

In high school, I was accused of being a lazy slacker.  When my college application was accepted, I went back to school and received high honors each semester I attended.  Then the story changed, and I was told I was a perfectionist and an over-achiever.  The truth is, I’m none of the above.

I’m just insecure, and believe it or not, I’m afraid of being a failure. 

No, I’m not afraid of failing, God knows I’ve done enough of it in my life.  It’s easy to fail when I don’t try though; it doesn’t bother me one bit.  I can tell myself that if I had wanted to, I would have done an excellent job, but I just didn’t care enough to exert myself. 

Instead, I’m afraid of being a failure.  So when I do care, I have to work my ass off to make sure I excel.  Because to try and fail would mean that I’m not good enough, not smart enough, and therefore have no real worth as a person.

So when I went to beauty school to become a nail tech, it was assumed that I would not only do well, but that I would once again exceed all expectations.  I wanted it after all, and I worked my ass off studying for quizzes and procedures the same way I studied for finals when I was pulling a 4.0 in college.

School had some really great ups, and some really horrible downs.  All of which I’ll eventually explain in another post, on another day.  For now, suffice it to say that I graduated with a respectable grade, and everyone assumed I would pass the state board exam with nary a hiccup.

Not so much.

The Wisconsin state board exam for manicurists is divided into two portions: a written exam, and a practical exam where you actually perform three services on a living model.  I passed the written exam with a high score, but failed the practical portion miserably.

Now, it’s been argued that my failure may not have been entirely my fault.  However, that feels like a dodge, and even if it were true, it’s not really pertinent to the story.  I tried my hardest, and I failed.  It was a crushing blow to my ego, and my sense of self worth.

I felt like I’d wasted John’s hard earned money, and didn’t want to waste more in another attempt I would probably fail.  I felt like such an idiot, and I was so embarrassed and disappointed in myself.

It took me over six months to find my determination, that can-do spirit I wrote about all those years ago, the one that would allow me to dust myself off and give it another go.  It was hard battling the demons I’d managed to previously contain, the ones whispering in my subconscious how worthless and stupid I was.  After all, manicures aren’t rocket science, how dumb do you have to be to tank the test?

Even when a friend passed the exam and helped me with my procedure, I still didn’t want to re-take.  It felt so much easier to give up and say it wasn’t worth the effort, then it would be to fail again.

Until one day, when I was talking to my son about a problem he was having at school, and I told him how important it was to keep trying.  “Failure isn’t a mark on your worth as a person,” I told him. “You only truly fail if you don’t even try to succeed.”

As soon as the words left my mouth I knew what a gigantic hypocrite I was.

So I re-took the test, because if nothing else ever comes out of my life, I at least want to be able to say I was a good example for my children. 

I was sure I’d failed again, but this time it wasn’t going to hold me back.  I had the paperwork prepped for the next test, waiting to be sent as soon as I got my failure notice.

It turns out I’m also a failure at predicting the future. 

When I received my exam results, I opened the envelope with a steady hand, and not a single hope in my heart.  It wasn’t until I saw the passing score that my hands started to shake, and I began to cry.  My kids thought I’d failed again, until I started jumping up and down.  It was over, I’d done it.  I managed to turn a failure into a success, even when I thought it was hopeless.

Now I want there to be some moral to the story here, but I don’t really have one.  Life sucks, get over it, maybe?  We can wallow in our own failures and insecurities, or we can get up and try a little harder.  Or, as in my case, we can do some of both; wallow for awhile, then get up and try again.

This experience hasn’t exorcised my personal demons.  No, I’m still a lazy, over-achieving, slacking, perfectionist.  Maybe next time it just won’t take me so long to quit acting like a baby.

I do know one thing for sure though, and it’s what I tell my kids all the time… 

Failure isn’t a grade on a piece of paper.  It’s the inability to learn from your mistakes, and the unwillingness to work to achieve your goals.

Success is just determination.