Until I was 20, I conceptualized my life as a series of failures. I wanted to be successful in a way that would make my parents proud—to be rich enough that my mother could brag about me to my relatives in the exact opposite way that she usually spoke to me about my future: with fear, anger, and frustration. My idea of my worth was based in what I thought I had to do to earn love, and I thought I had fallen short.
My failure to be my mother’s daughter was also a failure of my heritage; my blood. In traditional Taiwanese families, you are to nurture and honor those who have come before you, which means, in our culture, the capacity to care for your parents when they’re “done” taking care of you. (Your family is never “done” taking care of you, at least not mine; you exchange care and find new family, weaving in and out. In immigrant families, care is often circular; an infinite loop.) To my mother, who subscribed to this belief, there was a finite number of acceptable job fields for me, and they’re ones you might find predictable if you are also the child of immigrants: business; science; health. I was to become a doctor or an engineer, a lawyer or a nurse. I don’t think this is a particularly unique experience to Taiwanese-American families, but it was the path set in front of me, and I tried to follow it. I went into engineering programs; I went into physics; I spent my summers in laboratories and lecture halls and classrooms and prep courses.
I failed. I failed at it so thoroughly I was banned from engineering school for a while for constant misbehavior. This was a rebellious failure, I guess: I knew what I was expected to do, so I did the exact bare minimum, and ran straight into the opposite direction when I was through. Being mediocre is equivalent to failure when you’re Taiwanese. That kind of failure is impressive in its commitment to the cause.
I failed my way to my own path for awhile. It was awesome: I threw myself into fashion, I got my first byline, my first front row seat at fashion week, free stuff, a new job. It wasn’t what my parents wanted but it made me excited to wake up in the morning. I was finally excelling at something: just being me, in all of the particulars. When I finally got my dream job as a beauty editor, my parents ended up being thrilled for me. It felt like a culmination of something, some kind of retribution. Working on other people’s modes of success hadn’t worked for anyone involved. But here, something had. Something that was mine.
Many failures later—and successes, sometimes, too—I realized that you can succeed at your greatest goal and realize it’s not what you wanted after all. I quit that job. I got everything I thought I wanted, and it wasn’t what I wanted anymore. I learned actually, that there was a world of difference between wanting something because other people wanting it, and wanting it yourself. I found myself wandering in the space between. The disheartenment ate at me: Did I do it right? Is there something wrong with me, that I don’t find this marvelous? Where did I go wrong?
It took me some time to get my shit together, trying to find those answers. I realized the problem wasn’t me, but the circumstances I’d been put under. Leaving was the best thing for everybody involved. It took me more than one breakdown to get out. I tend to try to work on things until they’ve burned me up because I become so obsessed and used to failure that I can fall into the rhythm of it rather than moving on.
I’ll let you in on a secret I learned the hard way: Success is temporary, and failure is inevitable—and that’s not only OK, but necessary. Failure helps us become whole—and understand the possibility that we don’t know everything after all. Because, friend: we are mutable. We’re temporary and fragile! We’re water and star stuff and gelatin! We are more like Jell-O than stone. Of course our plans change and our dreams redirect. We aren’t meant to be forever one thing—for our decisions to be static, correct, and steady to the course. We bend to new courses; we change through them.
Failure showed me what it meant to move. When I know what doesn’t fit, the pleasure of finding something that does is almost indescribable. It fills me. That joy takes shape in the reflections of the failures that came before. I know what to say no to now before I even start, I know my limits harder and faster and better. I know what I need because I know what I can’t stand for. Walking away can seem illogical to other people, not to mention terrifying. Giving yourself space and time and listening to your instincts—isn’t that so scary? Of course you might fail. You could end up regretting it.
You also might not, or, at least, not permanently. Failure might lead to something even better. There’s no way of knowing before you do it. However scary that is, it’s cool, too. You have enough time to try (and this is true regardless of your age). Maybe it won’t work out. Try something else, and when that kind of trying becomes too much, you can stop. And then you try what comes from that.
Failure is a jailbreak. Failure is often an act of resistance against what you are told or “meant” to do. Failure means, “Not that. I choose otherwise.” Failure is a victory: the stubborn survival of the self, and an expression of the confidence that you can make more for yourself once you’ve shut the door. What you’ve failed at can become useful later. This was the case at least for me, because now I use my random knowledge in fields of science to find unusual patterns in beauty, a field that is filled with cool molecules. I like to conceptualize failure as the silence in between sentences, the long pause before something marvelous. It’s filled with anticipation, darkness, possibility, and power. Failure can be angry, and often is. But it’s not all it ever was, and, anyway, anger isn’t always a bad thing. It’s a source of energy you can eat and use for sustenance on your path to something that suits. It becomes a nutrient, some kind of marrow in the bones you need to work. You fail and know one more way you can’t win. And you work from there.
When you say no and stop and I can’t go on, you rewrite a story written with someone else’s terms. You edit it in a way that makes you feel better about yourself. This might mean slowing down when everyone else is telling you do move forward. This might mean stopping entirely and letting go of what you thought you wanted. If anything, failure is a disruption of a storyline you’ve goten lost in. If success is the complete narration of a moment and an idea, failing at it is a twist in the chapter you thought you knew the ending to. I always thought the twists were the most interesting parts. Who ever wants to get to the conclusion of a good book, anyway? I love never finishing stories; I refuse to let them go.
What is delicious about letting things fall apart entirely: the opportunity to make new things in their places. There’s an art to unbecoming—to failing so beautifully you have no choice but to reassemble your entire life into something more suited to your skin—something more surprising, and more hospitable.Failure isn’t the end of fortune, but its beginning. This is all a cycle. Temporary, transient. Gloriously so.
The artist Barbara Kruger has a piece that proposes the meaning of life is that it stops. I find it so comforting. I look at it when I am failing, or have finished succeeding, and have begun to fail. I have failed in that I have become bored, unhappy, something more that is indescribable: restless? Not quite the word. It’s a hunger that claws. It lets me know it’s time to move again. I can find it exhilarating and exhausting in equal measure, as long as I allow myself both responses. It does help. Carry in you every option. There are always more options.
I don’t regret trying, but I also don’t regret the thoroughness of my failure at all. It is enough to know what I don’t want. When the inevitable happens, you can take it. Yes, you failed at that thing you tried. Find pleasure in the detour. And? And then? Now what? We’ve still got a sun in the sky. Keep going. Let it ride. Try your best, let things happen, and if they fall apart, and if you do—you have that precious moment and material to reassemble, realign, and to be reborn. ♦