Sipping my new green tea my daughter’s roommate gave me from her trip in Japan (smooth with a perfect aftertaste), I am re-evaluating my bar of success. Grocery shopping was one too many things today. I have a head-ache and since my afternoon students cancelled, I could have just rested. Instead I went to the store, cut it short, then crashed on the couch when I got home, not even putting away the food until later. My bar is much lower than I want it to be.
Around our mid-twenties, my husband, brother-in-law and myself had a few conversations about finding our limits for the first time. It was really about dealing with failure, but we didn’t use the f-word. All three of us had been “smart” in school – meaning, we had the innate talents traditional education likes best. This led to boredom in the classroom. For my brother-in-law, he would annoy the other students; be a disruption. For me, I would sketch classmates, or read books under my desk. And my dear husband would try to pay attention but find his mind drifting to fantasy worlds.
With a few notable exceptions, we never had to try very hard to succeed. Failing at something meant we weren’t interested in it. Unfortunately, this meant that real life presented us with our first failure opportunities, and we were lucky we pulled it together. In law school my brother-in-law struggled for the first time, and considered dropping out. Instead he asked for extra help to figure out this new language and succeeded. It was an eye-opener. For my husband, he found himself in extraordinary circumstances trying to get his PhD all alone in a lab under intense pressure to finish quickly because his adviser had already left the school, while working full time to support his family of four. Trying his very, very best let him do just OK. A blow for the guy was both the valedictorian and could do a slam dunk on the basketball court.
And I was trying to be the BEST MOM EVAH which my kids didn’t seem to care when one would bang their head and the other would throw a tantrum in aisle three of the grocery store simultaneously. Since I looked like the teen mom I was, I was doubly embarrassed because I knew society considered me a failure already. As an at-home mom, my physical endurance and patience were challenged, but my brain was bored, so I decided to improve my musical skills. I wrote songs. Took up a new instrument. I went to an open mic and failed completely- couldn’t even finish, my hands were shaking so badly. But I went back. And failed again. And kept going anyway. The groceries still needed to be purchased and my kids were too little to leave at home so that continued as well. I learned to live as a total failure and found it freeing.
When it takes you three weeks at an open mic to get through one song, everyone cheers. When you look like you’re too young to own a cat, and your two children say “Thank you”, the neighbors are impressed. Surprisingly, when the bar was lowered, I tried harder. No one expected much so I did my best. I defined my own success.
Then I started to get sick. It was so very gradual with seemingly unrelated symptoms that I kept pushing to continue being the super bestest at everything. But I couldn’t keep up. Like my husband years ago, it took my very best to just be OK. And then I couldn’t even do OK. But I didn’t look sick. My weight gain was noticeable, but most people aren’t going to say anything about that. I had to lower my bar myself. I had to slow down before I had a name for my disease. I at first thought I was failing, that I just needed to try harder, but I was under extraordinary circumstances. I had to ask for help. Lots and lots of help. I had to let people know I was sick so they wouldn’t expect me to be…me. Along the way I failed other people by not realizing my limits. That’s probably the worst part.
As I am slowly healing, I have to remind myself that the bar is still low for a reason. I pushed myself last week and had a difficult few days recovering. I did it again this weekend, wanting so much to be at my previous level of “normal”, and am suffering for it. The doctor called and only had bad news. I’m much more patient with two screaming toddlers than I am with myself. I need to be comfortable in my “failure”, realize that a successful day is one that I set realistic goals for myself and try my best, adjusting along the way. It’s a never ending lesson.
One person in this story I didn’t mention yet is my sister. She did not have an innate talent for figuring out school. She did just fine in school due to hard work and asking for help everywhere she could. She never expects anything to be easy or simple, and although failure always sucks, she isn’t surprised or set back by it. Right now she is a healthy mother of two polite children, an amazing pianist and composer, and has her PhD in molecular biology. If she decided to go into law, I’m sure she would do it at her own pace with lots of help, and succeed.
Move with intention.