I Failed, and I Failed Hard

Read this reflective narrative about failing at work.

When Anna jumped at an opportunity to advance her career at a leading position at a fast-paced company on the other side of the country, she didn’t anticipate that her best wouldn’t be enough. This is the story of how she struggled to cope and had to come to terms with failing in a big way. 

I was always a high-performing student. I graduated summa cum laude from undergraduate and graduate school, was valedictorian of my high school, and even received the superlative “Most Likely to Succeed.” (I also was voted “Most School Spirit” but this isn’t about that). 

Needless to say, I’ve always done what was expected of me and then some, although I’ve never felt like a particularly high-achieving person. The pursuit of excellence in all things just always felt like the right thing to do, so I did it. And until very recently, trying hard paid off. (Literally!)

My track record of high-achievement translated into my work. I started my career at an entry-level position, and in just eight years worked my way all the way up to director of programs at a venture capital-backed, hyper-growth startup company based on the West Coast. I wasn’t really looking for a new job, and I definitely wasn’t seeking a cross-country move, but things sort of fell into place. 

I thought it was the right thing at the right time, and my mentor at my previous company seemed to believe in my ability to get the job done because she put me up for it. So, I took this prestigious director-level role for several reasons: 1) it was a step up in responsibility that, at the time, I thought I was ready to tackle (hello excellence-chasing-tendencies, nice to see you again!); and 2) people I trusted told me I should. Peer pressure is always a good excuse to move 3,000 miles away, right?

The company was fast-paced. And when I say fast-paced, imagine the Indy 500 but if there were no curves and it was downhill — were basically traveling at lightspeed. While preparing to transition into this new role, I was putting in my two weeks notice at my old job and hustling to finish my projects to not leave them hanging. Additionally, I was up to my eyeballs in figuring out logistics such as trying to figure out how to move across the country without spending a fortune. (Why does it cost a fortune to move?! I still don’t know the answer to that, and I’m still missing two of my favorite sweaters, so I’m not the person to ask.)

During the first month of the job, I felt like I was in a trance. I never felt grounded or centered, and was expected to complete projects in my first month that most people wouldn’t be asked to do in their first year. I was eating a lot of ice cream in my free time. 

By “free time” I mean the 20 minutes per day I wasn’t working or sleeping. I was living in a new city with no friends and no time to make friends. I was coping with cookies-and-cream instead of exercise, prayer, or meditation. I’d lost sight of all routine and discipline and was becoming a withered, tired, sad, burned-out, human blob (particularly in my midsection — but again, this is not really about that).

Prior to this job, I would not have described myself as an anxious person. I don’t typically worry about things, and if you asked my friends to describe me, I’m pretty sure they’d use the words “easygoing” and “adaptable.” And they would have been right! I can typically roll with the punches. (Wait, does that mean you take the punches or dodge them? Why do we use this phrase!? Protect yourself from the punches, people! Elbows up!)

The punches from this job came hard and fast. Warning signs that this role was unhealthy for me were numerous, but none more significant than the panic attacks I experienced. I have not felt so scared in a long time, mostly because I couldn’t get myself out of the panic. Bless my sister who answered the phone during my first episode and was able to talk me down, tap into my rational brain, and encourage me to close my computer and leave the office that day (especially because it was already after 8 p.m.). 

As the job became more demanding, my body went into protective mode and shut down all emotion. I couldn’t feel anything — no sadness or anger — and more concerning was that I couldn’t feel happiness or joy, or even laugh. I was totally neutral, completely numb. I don’t believe for a second we’re meant to exist in this state, so I tried to snap out of it.

The internet told me I should try meditating. As an extrovert, sitting in silence and deep breathing is not something I’d normally do, but the internet is never wrong (right?!) so I gave it a shot. I tried to just clear my thoughts and empty my brain of the endless to-do’s running through my head. I wasn’t very good at meditating, but tried to not let my achievement brain get in the way of the attempt. (The internet said my brain would do that! The internet knows all!) 

My sister had reminded me that my best is all I can possibly give in anything I do, and that in order to give my best at work, I needed to create space outside of work to nurture those parts of me I was missing. You know, small things like friendship, exercise, vegetables. So for the first time in my life, I let go of the overachieving tendencies and focused on simply achieving — doing my best. And for the first time in my life, my best wasn’t good enough.

Not long after that, I was fired. Or as my manager put it, “transitioned out of the company.” The transition lasted a whopping two days, and those days were filled with many tears of disappointment that I couldn’t be what they needed me to be. I felt disappointed mostly because I was really, really tired. Failure smacked me across the face, and I was thousands of miles away from friends and family to help me through it. I had failed, and failed hard. And I was alone. For someone who has historically succeeded at work, failure is quite the unfamiliar feeling. 

But…I had my feelings back! I was crying! This was good! 

My hijacked emotions had been freed, and I welcomed them home with open arms. That’s how I knew that God had responded to my surrender and given me what I needed, despite it looking like failure to outsiders. I was a real person again. 

Even though this was the most spectacular of my failures to date, I feel so at peace. I needed to fail to learn what is and isn’t a healthy work environment, and to learn that no job is worth sacrificing my mental, physical, and spiritual health. 

In the weeks since my failure, I’ve been able to tap into my emotions so much more readily and I am so grateful for each one — even the not-so-happy ones. Being unemployed has given me plenty of time to meditate and pray, and I trust that the next thing that comes my way will be the right one for me. 

I trust that God will take care of me, and I’m not in a hurry to figure out the next thing. No more rush jobs for me! I feel more connected to my needs than ever before, and that’s more comforting than any pint of ice cream or superlative will ever be.

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