Failure for Overachievers

Failure for Overachievers

In what will probably go down in history as one of the best scenes from television in general and Mad Men in particular, an icy Trudy Campbell dumps her slimy, cheating husband, Pete. “I refuse to be a failure,” she begins, laying out how their marriage will work from now onno divorce, but Pete is forbidden from coming home unless given permission. “I’m drawing a 50-mile radius around this house and if you so much as open your fly to urinate, I will destroy you.”

Although I cheered for Trudy (it’s been well-documented in these pages that I think Pete Campbell is the Dan Brown of all Mad Men characters), I found her statement troubling. Instead of cutting her losses and moving on to find happiness, she is going to make both her life and her familys miserable in her refusal to fail.

The Scarlet F. Courtesy of

I can relate. As an overachiever and perfectionist, I hate to fail. In fact, most overachievers fear failure to an unhealthy extent. Not only will a failure somehow reveal us as a fraud, we worry, but our perfect permanent record will have a nasty F on it, thereby lowering our life GPA. It doesn’t matter that no one else is monitoring our permanent records. We are carefully maintaining our files in triplicate because well, that’s what makes us good at overachieving.

I venture to say that fear of failure is not just an internal struggle. In my cohort of young overachievers, we learned all of our R’s (and noted how dumb it was to call them that, since writing and arithmetic don’t start with R’s unless you’re unable to read), were offered “enrichment” courses, and were told that we could be and achieve anything we wanted. But we were never taught how to fail well and with grace. And as a result, we are terrified of failure.

I watched Trudy’s speech to Pete after two weeks at a job that I knew going into it was not the best fit for me. Like most overachievers though, I figured that I would “help God out,” so to speak, and just take a job that didn’t fulfill me so that I wouldn’t be tempted to look to it for my identity. Overachievers and perfectionists constantly overstep our bounds because we think we know what’s best and that it’s our sacred responsibility to create perfection. In other words, we think we’re the gods and goddesses of our own lives.

I knew in the interview process that neither the organization, nor the work I would be doing, was a good fit for me. But after being out of work for almost 15 months and having made a big deal about itI mean, I had posted about it on Facebook I didn’t want to admit that I had made a mistake. Not only had I failed at dominating this job, I had failed at taking care of myself. I went from joy in the face of uncertainty, to a place beyond misery at this job. I felt too crushed to feel anger. Just defeat.

I’ve had terrible jobs before. Jobs that made me feel like I was being exposed for the talentless, stupid, fraud I always feared. Those jobs made me feel disconnected from myself and my heart felt shriveled and ragged.

I’ve also had wonderful jobs with work that made me feel like I was getting away with being paid to breathe. The work just came so naturally to me. I felt incredibly alive.

In other words, I know the environments and circumstances that will cause me to thrive, and at this stage in my life, remaining unhappy (and probably making other people miserable as a result) was not an option. Failure though? I’d just spent 15 months positively crushing funemployment. Failure was just the doorway to the chance to find joy once again.

So the question I started asking myself was “how do I win at failure?” How do I remain “humble in victory and gracious in defeat”? How do I cope with this failure on my permanent record? The answer to all of those things was ripped right out of the 12-step playbook. Admit you’re powerless to help yourself, that there is a higher power and you, thankfully, are not it.

As I said before, overachievers tend to think that we’re little gods and goddesses tasked with making sure our lives are happy, successful, and perfect. Sure, some of usa lot of usbelieve we’re not God (big G). I mean, that’s just dumb, and if we’ve gotten to this point in our overachievement, it hasn’t been because we’re stupid. But over our own little fiefdoms? Yes, we’re the lords and ladies of the manor. Unfortunately, we’re also the butlers, housekeepers, groundskeepers, and everyone else required to maintain the lifestyle to which we’ve become accustomedperfection.

We don’t assume that there is anyone else looking out for usand even if there were, could they do a better job than we could? I venture to say that we also don’t assume that anyone really and truly loves us. Because if we did, we’d stop being such unpleasant control freaks when life doesn’t work out according to our careful calculations. We wouldn’t fear our failures because we’d know that we were loved and cherished so much beyond what we do.

Personally? My problem was not the bad job. That was just a symptom of something much more cancerous. My problem was that even after a year of experiencing God in the midst of the worst of my fears (being laid off, failure to find a job right away), I still wanted to help him out. Because I didn’t fully believe that God cared more about my life than I did.

Sure, on a micro level, God isn’t like “you wore a green dress today. That was not in my perfect will for you. Repent! For the Kingdom of heaven is near and the Trinity called each other up last night and decided it was blue dress day.”

But on the macro level, I’ll admit that I struggle to believe that I’m loved so deeply and so divinely that God would also care about my life going well. As my pastor here in DC once said “God is terrible at meeting our expectations. He’s much better at exceeding them.” Even though I believe in a God who is goodness itself, who would be good to me for no reason other than that’s who he is (and because he loves me), I still fear that there is a limit to that love. And even though I believe that God’s love never fails,  I struggle to believe that it won’t fail me.

So how do you fail well? How do you ransack your mental office, find the permanent record you’ve been meticulously maintaining and shred it?

I think it lies in recognizing that you’re asking the wrong question. Failing well is like getting your grade changed from an F to a D-. You have still missed the mark.

Instead, recognize that the only thing that doesn’t fail is love. Until you can learn to accept lovewhether it’s God’s, your family’s, your friends, whoever’sand let that love teach you to love yourself, your tendency will be to open a new case file the first chance you get. Surround yourself with people who love youeven and especially when your failures and imperfections are laid bare. It has been written that “love keeps no record of wrongs.” The people who love you don’t do it because of your wins. They are not keeping track of your victories and defeats. But if they love you, they are keeping track of your happiness and at that they are rooting for you to succeed.

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