On my last workday of 2017, I wrapped my fingers around a hot cup of tea, grabbed my favorite goal-setting journal, and got to work. I outlined 10 goals for the year ahead, based on what was important to me. What I wanted. Things I hoped for. What felt right. The process made me feel steady, in control, and ready to take on 2018.
Of the 10 goals I set, I fully accomplished one. Two goals I intentionally set aside. The remaining seven I kind-of, sort-of accomplished. I muddled my way through the year with them, pivoting and altering and wondering why nothing felt quite right. I worked with fewer clients and made significantly less money than the year before.
While I was busy not accomplishing my goals, the year was also full of another kind of failure: rejection. I submitted personal essays to 15 publications and got rejected by 12 of them. From May through December, my inbox held a steady stream of “Thanks, but no thanks” form letters from magazines and journals that I respected.
“I can’t be a writer if no one will publish my work,” I thought. “Maybe I’m no good. Maybe this isn’t what I’m meant to do. Maybe I should give up.”
In the midst of these non-starters, my husband and I decided to redo our kitchen– something we’ve been wanting to do for years– and then uncovered a major issue with our house. It’s complicated, but here’s the gist: we found out that our foundation was crumbling, insurance wouldn’t pay for it, our house was essentially worth nothing– oh, and it was a six-figure repair. Our home– the biggest financial investment of our life, one that we were counting on to propel us forward– was falling apart under our feet.
“What are we supposed to do?,” I wondered. “We’ll go broke, into major debt. We’ll be stuck here forever. We’ll never leave. All of our plans are destroyed.”
That became the theme of 2018– destruction, undoing, things falling apart– and yet, after the initial devastation of each of these experiences, I began to feel a lightness that I’d never felt before.
Once I stopped trying to force life to fit the ideas I had for my future, what I had was simple: I had myself.
I learned that what I achieve in business or in life has nothing to do with my worth, or even my ultimate contribution to my family and the world.
I found what writing means to me, that it’s not just a frivolous venture or personality quirk but something that I need and that is part of me. I realized that, even if I faced rejection upon rejection, year after year, I felt compelled to keep going. There was no way I was going to stop writing; I couldn’t. At first that felt like bondage, until, all of a sudden, it felt like freedom.
I discovered that nothing can stop my family’s impromptu kitchen dance parties, which is just another way of saying that nothing can stop our happiness.
The foundation of our family isn’t concrete, it’s people– it’s us– and we are not crumbling. We’re resilient; we keep getting stronger.
I would not have chosen to learn these lessons the hard way. Make no mistake, if I had control of it, I would have had my biggest year ever in business; I would have piled a shelf high with publications that had printed my work; I would, right now, be making my afternoon cup of tea in a gleaming new kitchen. That’s not the way it happened, though. Instead: failure, setbacks, and switchbacks.
Eventually, the barrage of thoughts in my head came to this: “Well…what are you gonna do?”
It was an honest question. I could fight, rage, fill myself with anger and frustration and fear. Or I could let it all go, roll with it, laugh at how winding the road had become.
Failure taught me that there is a joy that is separate from anything we could accomplish, achieve, or acquire– and without it, no accomplishment, achievement, or acquisition will ever feel like enough. I had long understood that to be the truth, but it has been life-changing to uncover that visceral feeling and embody it.
There are gifts in anything you’ve ever failed at, in anything that feels like it’s fallen apart. Lessons to learn, things to take away and tuck into your heart, ways in which you can understand and grow and thrive. I’ve always had the ability to see this in hindsight, but it was only through the struggles of the past 12 months that I learned to see it right away, right now. If I had spent the last year stringing together a series of accomplishments, I wouldn’t have learned these lessons, these truths that now feel essential to my life.
It taught me what matters and what, somehow, just doesn’t. I still care about accomplishments and tangible things; I have dreams and I take action. But I also know that so much of it is unimportant, or fleeting, or ego-driven, or unpredictable. It’s a lot less serious and a lot more fun, now that I’ve loosened my grip and learned to relax and allow. This emergence of ease, and the understanding of its importance, isn’t just a fleeting thought or tweetable moment– it has sunk itself into my bones.
There are things that feel like failure, but now I wonder– can we actually fail? How could we, if we take our experiences and learn, grow, use them to face the world with an increasingly open mind and open heart and open arms?
The failures of last year gave me a gift: the ability to face all the years ahead (and all the goals and hopes and dreams that will live within them) knowing that somehow, it’s all okay. That the biggest failures might not actually be failures at all, but gifts in disguise, waiting to guide you to your brightest, fullest life, if only you let them.
MotherHustle panelist Stacy Firth is a writer and content strategist who helps moms who are small business owners and solopreneurs create online content that keeps it real. She also leads workshops that help mamas lead a lit-up life, and is mama to two. You can find her on her website or on Instagram at @stacyrfirth.
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