Failure is just a matter of perspective and I know this to be the truth. Even by their definitions, it is quite easy to see how this is true.
Failure: lack of success
Perspective: a particular attitude toward or way of regarding something; a point of view.
Success and the measure of it is something that is different for every person and we can each change our opinion of it many times throughout our lives. For example, Madonna was the biggest success in music at one time according to record sales. But some might not list her as being successful any longer because she doesn’t consistently still make new music.
The shitty part about this is that we often assume our perspective is universal. We love to tell ourselves that the world judges us on the same standards that we judge ourselves on as we look at who might have a bigger house, better job title or appear happier on social media. We often fail to realize that not only are we usually the harshest judges of ourselves, but also that others might not measure success in the same way we do.
We tell ourselves the lie that more must be better. We believe if we get what we want it will equate to a better life. If only I could get my kitchen renovated, I would become an amazing cook and host. If my child goes to private school, they will be financially more successful. If I get liposuction on my tummy, I will never eat junk again. The list could go on.
We tell ourselves what we want to hear, but when the ‘better’ does not happen, we feel like a failure. And worse, because we are putting so much pressure on ourselves to succeed at high levels in every area of our lives, it is nearly impossible to find that ‘better’ situation we are striving for. We end up chasing goals that are unreachable.
I have fed many times into this lie throughout my life. I stopped by not adding that end goal of perfection or the ideal into the equation. I now catch myself before I add a ‘better’ statement.
Just yesterday I told myself I will only shop from Amazon when absolutely necessary, which means an item that cannot be found anywhere else online. I can then buy it on Amazon. By sticking to this rule I, in turn, am a better advocate for small businesses and am a better, less greedy person overall.
I quickly caught myself, understanding that by making this rule and this judgment I was setting myself up for failure instead of setting a goal or incentive to better support small businesses. As I really know that this is not an achievable goal for me. At this time in my life, retail therapy and giving myself a little gift of something like new great dane socks to stuff in my overflowing sock drawer is a form of self soothing. This decision and judgment will not cure me of that. It will simply add more shame to my next purchase.
My nightly routine for the past few weeks is to have cherry pie with vanilla ice cream after dinner. I kept telling myself after this pie is finished I will no longer add it to the grocery list. But, inevitably, in moments of desperation, trying to set up this arbitrary goal for myself has instead meant that my son Zach had to go out after dinner to Sobeys to make a special trip to get my pie. After this, I no longer say I will stop. This just leads me to feeling bad about my food choices in a time when I should maybe be enjoying the food that I want to eat.
As a side note, I have tried all of the healthier alternatives of switching out the pie for sugar free or more natural options. But, if Stage 4 Cancer hasn’t afforded me one nightly indulgence, what has it given me?
Another famous way to deal with failure is to start with the statement, “What if”. What if I had done things differently? We always assume that things would have turned out better.
Zach, who was sixteen at the time, once talked about a business venture of mine that we had decided to close. We talked about how hard it was on my self esteem and on my bank account. He looked at me and said, “But how do you know if that one failure had turned into a success that it would not have created other more catastrophic failures? Your success could have had you working 24/7 and it could have resulted in you and I having a shitty relationship. I could have rebelled with drugs just to get your attention.” It seemed so clear for him at age sixteen; I wondered if at that moment he could see that alternative past and future flash before him.
Every action has a reaction and we can never know whether a different action or alternative path taken would have worked out better for us. But as humans, we love to assume if we have 20/20 hindsight and that our perceived failures could have had a better outcome.
If only I had followed my dreams, I would be happier today. That is bull crap. You have no idea if by following your dream you would now be happier. Maybe in your new dream you never had kids or while crossing the street to go to your dream job a car hit you and you lost both legs or died. If you feel one path was a misstep, that does not mean the alternative would have been the perfect choice.
Plus what does it mean to follow your dreams, anyway? We often measure our dreams according to our passions but we aren’t driven by one passion, goal or value. A music teacher might have had a dream to become a full-time musician years ago but likely choose their path based on more than just one decision. It was likely a combination of factors that led them to a more stable and predictable career that would keep them in one place.
If someone truly feels they have a missed opportunity in their past, there are always ways of restarting an old dream. It is never too late to make a change if it is really what you want. Or maybe when you find yourself pining over an old ambition, it is not about the dream but more about filling a gap in your life that you have yet to identify. Maybe it is about acknowledging something in your now where you are holding yourself back. We all know we are our own worst enemy and 99% of time we are the ones standing in our own way.
I used to believe if I had stronger business connections in Canada, I would have had an offer of a senior executive role upon my return from Europe and continued an exciting career here for many more years. I now see there is no truth or purpose in this belief or statement. While I loved my career in Europe, there were more reasons beyond my professional network that caused me to choose a different path when I came back to Canada.
My real dream was to launch an online web and mobile app business that could help people believe in themselves. I pursued this dream, created the app and launched the business. But, unfortunately for years, I saw this venture as a failure. It caused me to go into a depression and feel full of shame and embarrassment.
But, as I stated earlier, Zach asked what if it had been a success. Where would that have left him and I? With therapy I have worked through a change of perspective, but it has taken ten years.
I had to write down all the pluses and negatives of this experience to see that it can’t be so easily labeled as a failure. There were lots of pluses and the only negative was the financial loss. Just a handful of the pluses were: I got to work with my two sisters and other amazing smart inspiring people; we helped tens of thousand people who used our site daily; we launched the site at South By Southwest, one of the largest tech conferences in the world; we got offered a spot on Dragons Den (we turned it down for many reasons); the press loved us and often profiled us; we were even asked to partake in a reality show; we lead the way for self-help tech and ranked #1 for self-help mobile apps on iOS Apple; the list could go on.
But in the immediate aftermath, all I could see was the financial failure and that we did not secure investors fast enough to safely stay in business. I kept asking myself how I could have been so dumb and I believed the project would have done better with another leader. I believed I had failed the team and our early investors. I actually believed I no longer deserved happiness and that the business world was better without me.
From this failure, my career turned a complete 180 degrees and I have much gratitude for where it took me. The universe had other plans for me. The universe guided me to working with street kids, kids stuck in the criminal justice system and I got to know and investigate stories of people like Shelley Deroscher. When a person feels so low sometimes, it is the best time to take them out of their comfort zone and push them off the boat into the ocean without a life preserver.
Shelley Deroscher was a missing woman from London, Ontario and no one was actively looking for her. When I got the request to do a podcast on her, I was unsure how to approach it. My podcast was relatively new. It was focused on helping people tell their story and how they overcame their hardships, challenges, and trauma through sheer resilience and believing in themselves when no one else did. The podcast was growing and doing well, but was not monetized, as back then it was still a new medium.
I promised I would do one episode on Shelley. Never did I think sixteen months later and after nine episodes that I would become a true crime investigative reporter. It was a hard, sad, exciting, scary, captivating sixteen months of my life. The experience changed me for life and allowed me to grow in ways I did not think I had in me. It put my life on a new course and it would not have happened without my epic failure. It is all about perspective.
The universe does not let anyone have it good all the time (or even 80% of the time). It just does not work like that. We as humans love to complain even when we do have it good. We all take things for granted.
I took my health for granted. I would say things like ‘health is wealth’ and ‘all that matters is our health’ . But my actions proved even then that I didn’t fully believe what I was saying. I would make some effort to make healthy choices, but many nights would binge ice cream and would only stop by throwing the rest of it out down the drain.
I did not pursue meditation. If I did, it would last a few days and then be forgotten, because I did not make it a priority. I did advocate for my health when I started to feel things were not right and my health started to decline. But I believed the doctors when they said it was all in my head. If anything, I have learned not to take anything for granted. Anything can change in a split second.
It is easy to take people for granted, especially our partners. Life is so busy and it is hard to carve out quality time together. When the cancer diagnosis came, I remember wanting to be with my husband Al all the time. My dad, Al, and my son Zach would rotate staying overnight with me in the hospital, but on average Al was with me 18 out of 24 hours a day. Our relationship was no longer taken for granted and even three years later we stay very much attached by the hip and make sure we tell one another how grateful we are for the other. Al is still my main caregiver and I thank the stars daily that the universe brought us together, as without him life would be much harder. He manages all my medicines, appointments, and tests. He is my lifeline. As he just turned 76. I keep telling him his health cannot be taken for granted. We need to be active with his health care. I cannot imagine life without him.
Ironically, it took me getting Stage 4 Cancer to learn to take care of my physical and mental health. If only (here we go with if only) I had made the things I make today a priority, I think I would have caught my cancer earlier and felt more joy and peace in my life. I love to tell myself this. I will put this statement in my head to the point where I will sit in a rocking position crying over that possibility.
Rationally I know these are loaded words when combined together and should never be used unless we are thinking of the possibilities for the future and daydreaming. Instead, we need to focus more on what is.
It is hard to sit in the world of what is. It is hard to admit it might be far removed from the imagined alternative.
The universe gave my parents, my husband, and my son a loved one with a terminal illness. But I like to believe maybe I dodged a bullet for Zach and that he will live cancer free. Maybe the universe did give my parents two daughters with cancer, but one of them caught it early and is doing great. So, the universe gave them only one cancer death to deal with. We should be thankful. And yet some days I find myself saying ‘why not me too’.
We need to stop letting our negative, self critical thoughts rule us. We need to not see our failures as failures, but perhaps as necessary parts of our journey to play a role in the larger universe. We need to see potential failures as blessings in disguise that had a domino effect in the universe. We need to celebrate experiences, whether good, bad, successful, or failed, as necessary parts of growth. And very seldom do we fail or succeed on our own. We tend to forget it may just hit one person harder. Some people are better at positioning their failure to others, but I think everyone struggles internally with not achieving what they set out too.
We like to believe our failures would not have happened through our ‘if onlys’, instead of looking at what is and changing our perspective of a failure. Your failure might be your blessing. Maybe we should thank the universe for watching our back and only giving us what we can handle.
~ Karla xoxo
Karla Stephens-Tolstoy has stage 4 chronic cancer, diagnosed in 2018. She is Her2 negative, IDC. She takes 50 pills daily, including Ibrance and letrozole, her cancer fighting pills. Karla is the co-owner of the online store StandUpSpeakUp.ca with her son, Zach. Through this venture, they are proud donors to various charities. All proceeds of their limited edition Healing and Empowerment Scarves are donated to Wellspring Cancer Support Centre.