Why I Ended Up Talking About Failure on Career Day

The following post was written over a year ago, but I just rediscovered it sitting on my hard drive.

It was not a random rediscovery, rather, I went looking for it. Why? Well, because I'm about to dive into another idea, one that's going to be difficult, lead to sleepless nights, and my stomach is starting to churn thinking about it.

As a side note, I've loved working as a Producer over the past six months and I will continue to produce films. This idea is not separate from that, it builds on it. Having downtime between projects causes my mind to become anxious and look for a business model that can sustain the work I love doing. Fear is not going to win out. If it fails, that's one thing, but I don't want to give up on it. Id I commit and others commit, I have a responsibility to see this through, even with it becomes unbearably hard. 

There are many components about this idea that I do not fully understand, but I believe in its viability and scalability. So, I've decided on the "fuck yah or no" scale to say fuck yah (pending getting through the proof of concept stage), and run this as a true start-up. 

Anyway, here's my old article. 

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I just got home from attending a career fair event at UBC put on by the International Relations Student Association where I was asked to talk on a panel about “how I became successful and how concentrating in International Relations may have gotten me there.”

While the prompt I find puzzling, as my instinct is to pounce on the subjectiveness of words like success, I went along with it and decided it would be a great opportunity to talk with some young minds about to set sail in the “real world.”

The panel was stacked. My co-panelists were sociable, brilliant, passionate people from diverse backgrounds doing fascinating things with their lives, more so than myself.

We spoke on the need to act with intention, to experiment and be involved and try new things, the importance of defining success for yourself and not letting others take the ability to define your success away from you. We nodded at each other’s lines, quoted our fellow panellists, highlighted, emphasized, repeated, and echoed each other’s words. It was like a Cuban debate, where each participant sits around a table agreeing with each other.

About halfway through the discussion, as my co-panelists discussed their illustrious career paths, navigating through international criminal law, diplomacy, the nonprofit sector and beyond, I looked out into the crowd and saw bemused faces.

While we sat there thinking we were inspiring young people to embark boldly out into the world, we had forgotten something vital. We had ignored our failures, our wakeful nights, our desperate moments, the nitty gritty details of the times where we were lost and confused. We forgot to share our pain.

When people seek to inspire, we’re somehow programmed to lead by positive example. We feel that we’re supposed to tell encouraging stories, show people who are lost what you did to, well, find your way in the world. How did you build your empire, set your career on the right path, enjoy a great family life, have amazing sex, buy a nice house and all those typically wonderful things mainstream society aspires towards?

In many ways, as I sat there falling prey to this same conventional wisdom of hackneyed go-out-there-and-get-’em stories, I realized these were half truths. They were shallow and painted an unrealistic portrait of our lives.  

We ignored the hard moments. We paved over the failures, the disappointments, the crushed relationships, the shitty ideas and the regrets we had over actions taken and untaken. I looked out and was not seeing emboldened faces ready to jump into the world and run, but rather, I saw confusion. Perhaps while these great things the panel was talking about sound wonderful, there was little practical resonance with the audience. We only lengthened the gap between us and them.

I took the mic. And one by one, I proceeded to share some of my funniest, most embarrassing moments of failure. The horrible ideas that were acted on and the great or at the very least viable ideas that I had consequently banished to the dungeon of theories and inaction.

I talked about the time I tried to start a tea business in Pakistan, having travelled all the way into Taliban territory to find this small tea plantation. Only after then was I to understand that Pakistan does not actually grow tea and this tiny plantation was an unsuccessful economic experiment. At least the bushy bearded proprietor treated us to a nice cup of tea before we hightailed it outta there.

I talked about the time when I wanted to open a hostel in Kashgar and that time I started an essay editing company only to quit after I edited one single essay. I spoke about my inaction, my over planning, this false chase for perfection, my mistakes, my illustrious failures and the fact that I still feel lost, all the time, amidst successes and failures.

The students started to laugh and those bemused expressions transformed into nods and smirks; my failures resonated with them. Not because they have had the same experiences, but because if you can talk openly about your failures, your shortcomings, your moments of confusion, your experiences become more approachable and you become more regular.

Successes seem more attainable with the understanding that they are preceded by trials and tribulations, struggles and failures, moments of learning and short gains, followed by acceptance, realization and maybe, eventually, genuine confidence.

Leading by example is crucial to teaching and inspiring people, but that does not mean you can cut out the rotten parts; life is not a banana. If you want motivate people and instill a sense of confidence, then you have a duty to not only leave in all the imperfections, but also call attention to them, to scream out loud that you have been vulnerable and are still vulnerable today.

Failures make us human, and while they do not need to define who we are, they are still part of our experience and our growth. Maybe we have a natural tendency to learn from our failures and then proceed to tuck those moments into the crevices of our memory. Maybe if we refuse to learn from failure it’s because of the same reason-- this resistance to accept and embrace them.

This being said, success is rarely defined by the lack of failure, but rather the acceptance of it. If embracing your failures can make you stronger, then, perhaps counterintuitively, they can also help others build confidence as well.

It sucks to say, but let’s face it, we learn quicker through pain than through taking only the easy paths at every turn. Pain keeps us aware, forces us to pivot, to pull oneself up and to avoid walking back into the very thorn bush that hurt us in the first place. And even if we do walk back into it, which will inevitably happen, we will likely try a different, quicker way out the next time.

Whether we like it or not, pain and struggle is part of our evolution as people. Accepting it, analyzing it and learning to grow from it is what leads to a more sophisticated sense of self-awareness and confidence.

So, no, my Pakistani tea business never worked, nor did my Kashgar hostel or a ton of other wild ideas I’ve spouted out. I did bring 98 people, mostly highly successful CEOs, to a Military Parade with Kim Jong Un in North Korea, but that's another story all together. My point, for every moment of success, with me anyway, there are many more failures. I'm on a path to become more consistent and mature, but it took time and experience and especially pain to realize this. 

But eventually, with hard work, determination and consistency, I’ll be able to make something great, or at least go down trying. At the same time, I hope that recounting my failures can help others on their life paths as well.