“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” — J.K. Rowling
I’M POSITIVE ABOUT FAILURE. POSITIVE IT SUCKS.
Failure and disappointment are, unfortunately, facts of life. I’m not going to sit here and say “Failure is GREAT!” No, it sucks. And it hurts. It REALLY hurts. And bouncing back after failure is not easy. However, failure, at it’s core, does mean we took a risk and it’s better to have risked something than done nothing. No matter how much it hurts, it’s important to focus on what we can learn instead of just focusing on all the negatives. This year, I got to deal firsthand with some pretty nasty failure & disappointment, and I’m still dealing with the aftermath and bouncing back.
Robert Adams, in The Importance of Failure, talks about how experiencing failure can help strip down egos and shape who we are. He reminds us that without failure, we’d be less capable of compassion, empathy, kindness, and great achievement; failure can propel us forward. He also reminds us that failures helps to create an epic journey; If we succeed immediately, there is no story to tell. In that vein, here’s this chapter of MY story.
I’ve been pursuing the freelance and remote dream for a while now. We’ve been slowly applying to more conventions for Harrison’s art, and I’ve been gradually adding new clients and projects. The goal, of course, is for both of us to be fully self-employed, working contract to contract, focusing on his art, while I support him and other artists from a business standpoint. As such, we’ve been working on paying debts down and off, and saving money.
The hardest part of switching to full time freelance is the financial uncertainty, and we just aren’t quite financially ready to jump. Even so, there’s only so far either of us can go with our personal career paths when we’re working soul-crushing, exhausting hourly jobs for random companies. When I come home exhausted from a rough day of work, I want to spend time with my family, relaxing, and then actually getting enough sleep. It’s hard to find time or energy to work on promoting myself.
A SHINING BEACON OF HOPE
Earlier this year, I thought I had hit the absolute jackpot. I had not one, but TWO contracted clients lined up, and it looked like everything was about to change. Both were promising 90% remote work plus travel to work at events, part time hours, with great pay. Between both, I would be able to work from home, pay all the bills, and continue to save and pay off debt. Due to the nature of the work and limited hours for each, I would have additional time to work on my own business and Harrison’s, without sacrificing income or family time. I’d be able to quit my “day job” and focus on freelance.
IF IT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE…
The first position was Project Management for a client who was trying to break into Pop Culture/Convention event management, starting new events for niche groups. I threw everything into it, because it was giving me the chance to work HOW I wanted, for something I was passionate about (fandom); I learned new programs, worked late at night, video-conferenced, designed packets and helped with the website building. The resulting estimated profit from the events meant a large promised bonus.
In the end, after months and months, things kept shifting, the team kept being rebuilt, and the project and dates for events kept changing. No events ever got off the ground, and the windfall of income never happened. The final result was months of long hours for no payoff either monetarily or emotionally, and the possibility of it all being a rip off. I had to walk away for my professional safety and personal sanity. To this day I don’t fully know if the whole thing was actually a scam or just someone who really didn’t know how to run a business.
COUNTING CHICKENS BEFORE THEY HATCH…
The second one seemed much more secure. Steady pay right away. Communication seemed better and so much clearer. Systems seemed to be in place to keep everyone on the remote team in the loop and on track. There were SOPs written for all tasks. I continued to have more responsibilities added. They paid for me to travel to work at an event. When I got home from that event, they gave me even more tasks & projects to be responsible for. Everything was looking great. It was going so well, in fact, that I picked a date to be my last at my other job, which I had already reduced my hours drastically at. Harrison and I made convention and travel plans based on the new income and the flexibility of the job.
BRIDGE OUT AHEAD!
Of course, that’s when everything started to fall apart. I noticed they were assigning less tasks to me. When I was asking for information or clarification, I was not getting responses. Then a new person got added to the team, and I watched in our online system as tasks that were assigned to me got moved to her and I discovered I had been removed from accessing a few of our programs. It was at that point that I was told I had not lived up to their expectations and wasn’t doing the work they expected. I was told there were multiple tasks I had done wrong or dropped the ball on.
As they listed tasks, my shock and confusion grew. These were things I was a) never asked to do or b) was never told I was doing wrong. I submitted work based on following the documented procedures. If there were steps not listed in the SOP, I reasoned, someone would have told me, or asked why I hadn’t done said (undocumented) step. They continued to insist it was all on me, that I hadn’t been proactive enough in knowing I should have been asking questions. In the end, they terminated my contract and paid me out for that month.
We had a communication impasse. They saw things one way and I saw them another. In the end it was clear we just didn’t mesh. It’s going to happen. Not every job or every client will be a good match. To me, it felt like they had wanted someone psychic. How could I know I was doing things “wrong” if no one was telling me? How was it “fair” to hold things I didn’t have any way of knowing against me? This was the closest I’d ever been to being fired, and it HURT.
BACK TO THE GRINDSTONE
After this, I went back to full time at my day job. The one I had been halfway out the door of. But with debts we’re paying off, a teenage child, and the cost of living in Los Angeles, I had little choice. I didn’t realize for another several months after losing the second client just how much all of this messed with my brain. That’s how long it took to identify the funk and fog I was in. I was depressed, and angry, and my self esteem was in the toilet.
Despite the issues each job had, my mind was telling me I could have magically known and fixed the problems. I realized I had been holding back from promoting my business or trying to get new clients. Everything had become a capital-T Thing, thanks to my anxiety. I never took time to reflect on what had happened, how it affected me, and what I should do next.
According to Matt Appling, the best stories involve conflict, and a hero who keeps getting knocked down and keeps getting up anyway. We have to keep going and not quit before we reach the climax of our own story. Man, I really WANTED to quit. Without fully realizing it, I had resigned myself to my fate, working the old day job for, well, as far out as I could see. I thought I could just go back to going through the motions of my life.
When Monica Ng of Nerdburgers went through a similar down time, she says she kept trying to just power through with her usual routine and it was an epic fail of being unproductive, easily irritated, distracted and an emotional mess. She realized she had residual feelings she hadn’t done anything about. And so, I realized, did I. There were things I needed to do.
- Take time to evaluate, process, and pivot.
- Give myself permission to have FEELINGS about the whole situation.
- Remind myself that it’s okay when things don’t go according to plan.
- Sit down and come up with a revised plan.
As Matt Appling reminded me, failure is not the end of the world, and certainly not a sign to give up. If anything, it’s a sign to work harder, and work smarter. Elizabeth Enochs has a good quote in this article – “Struggle makes every success story more interesting to hear and rewarding to tell. Plus, each time we fail, we learn something about who we are, what we want, and what not to do the next time we try to get it.”
The illusion that I had control over, well, anything, was shattered. And so was the finish line that had seemed so close. I’ve certainly learned lessons about what to look for in clients, what questions to ask and what research to do. These failures have also added to my resilience – you’ve heard the addage “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger”? Failure, as long as we move forward from it, makes us more resilient to pain and more determined to succeed. Monica Ng reminds us that nothing in life will ever remain static, and no matter how hard we try, sometimes it’s all going to go to shit – all we can do is get better at rolling with change.
WHAT I LEARNED
The good news is, once I realized why I was in a funk, I was able to step back and evaluate the jobs, the issues, and what I wanted and needed going forward. Now I’m diving back in, more determined than ever. I have a few takeaways from my experience, both in knowledge gained and self-evaluation, after taking a few steps back. I’m aware of where I am now and have a clearer picture of where I want to be.
- Despite these particular contracts going sour, they still reaffirmed that I’m focusing on the right thing. Working for myself, helping others, working remotely is still 100% what I want to do.
- Creating my own schedule and the ability to actually plan my own life improved my mental and physical health, again reinforcing that freelance/self-employment is the correct path for me.
- I learned new programs while working with these contracts, taking time to learn them thoroughly, giving me additional skills and tools to offer my future clients.
HOW I’M BOUNCING BACK AFTER FAILURE
- I managed to finish my thesis and graduate as Valedictorian from my Master’s Degree program.
- I learned more about myself as a person and came out stronger than ever.
- I’ve been jumping into more education – I’m doing more WordPress, Social Media and Writing training.
- I’ve joined several self-employment/networking groups to keep myself accountable and share my struggles and triumphs with others.
- At the “old” job, I got the opportunity to temporarily work the exact costuming position I’ve wanted a chance at for over a decade.
- I’ve learned to refocus my energy and find the positives even in bad situations.
- I’m focusing on clients that match my passions and values, rather than just taking any contract that pays.
It’s been a rough year, but it’s also been full of a lot of necessary learning, evaluating, and pivoting. Failing sucks. Getting back up is hard. But I’m doing it. Here’s to moving forward.
Around here we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious…and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths. – Walt Disney