Failure is the new success

betty ming liu Inspiration 14 Comments

I never wanted to be a loser, a has-been, the leftover kid in gym class that the team captains were loathe to pick. But things happened….

Poor Betty.

Looking back, there were so many ways that I was unsuccessful. Thankfully, those sorry experiences didn’t go to waste. I held them close until the magic of Getting Through The Day eventually revealed my true potential. So don’t give up; we can all make it!

Discovering happiness took a long, long time because my parents had me convinced that I was already happy. As Chinese immigrants who had survived war, famine and their own no-sex, no-fun rotten marriage, they said they were happy. They wanted me to get with the program too. After all, they were providing plenty of food and I had my own bed in a safe, furnished apartment. They even spoke English, which made it possible for us to all understand each other when we were arguing.

The problem was, even though they gave me everything they could, I knew they weren’t happy with me. This was the 1960s, when I was only a little girl. But I was already a failure.

Through the ’70s, my inadequacies piled up in high school and college as I brought home grades point averages that hovered in the C+ to  B- range. They were my devilishly satisfying strategy for sabotaging my father who had already worked so hard to force me into right-handedness. Now he insisted on selecting my courses (heavy on business and math; English and art history were time wasters). For fun, he let me go to church.

When I was 19, Dad died at age 70 of a sudden heart attack. Free at last but I feel guilty for admitting this. At first, Mom leaned on me to help at the Chinatown bookkeeping business that he left us. But I was a hopeless accounting major. One semester, I had straight Ds. So Mom coped on her own as I knew she would, while I finally found a social life with my first real boyfriend: Mr. Cute Black Guy From The Brooklyn Housing Projects. I also somehow managed to get into Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and survived as a mediocre student.

There was more failure in the ’80s and ’90s as I focused on career and marriage. My mother considered me a loser because I worked for The New York Daily News instead of The New York Times. My interracial marriage to the bf made her feel like a failure in Chinatown social circles  — until she and her son-in-law discovered they were soul mates with similar ideas about success.  It’s true, a lot of us marry our mothers. Be careful.

Along the way, a friend who is white suggested that I try therapy because I seemed so tense. I was aghast! Only crazy, self-indulgent white people went to therapy. The rest of us, we take care of our own problems. Besides, revealing personal matters to a stranger was embarrassing, even shameful…

Wait — I heard the magic words. A chance to further disgrace the family. Where do I sign up?

With the help of a therapist, I discovered that reflecting on my life didn’t have to devolve into criticism. I also found new ways to look at situations and rethink my issues. Now the fight to save myself began in earnest. Ironically, the high stakes failures of adult life began to pile on, big time.

Just when my career as a newspaper columnist was taking off with guest TV news appearances, I quit to do the mommy thing.

I started the millenium by getting divorced. This was 2000 and our baby was barely four years old. The breakup horrified my mother even more than our marriage. But at this point, I was too wrecked too care. Those first few post-divorce years were emotionally treacherous. Such huge, huge holes in my heart. You want to talk failure? Try putting a confused, innocent child to bed at night and making her feel safe — that’s how I defined daily success and failure.

My bank account could have become another category of failure. While I left the marriage with a nest egg, there wasn’t enough to support the old lifestyle. I became a single working mom. But I also found ways to take painting and drawing classes. As a part-time college adjunct professor, there were even an option to to take freebie English literature courses.

Sometimes, I lose confidence because I’m not rich. After all, that’s the ultimate measure of worldly success, isn’t it? But this is where personal definitions of happiness come in. What I see in my past so-called failures is one kid’s struggle for self-expression in a rigid, homogenous culture. Over the years, I have reclaimed my left-handedness and my worth as a woman. I have expanded my sense of family to include one that is filled with friends and relatives of my own choosing. My blood flows color-blind. And I plan to live the rest of my life feeling beautiful.

In some ways, success on these terms feels like I’m running around naked. No more games. No more repressed struggles to be heard. Instead, I’m constantly experimenting with new ideas, new projects, ready to try — not worrying about failure. This is living!

I hope this hasn’t been too much information. But just in case it is, if you’ll excuse me, for a minute, I’ll go put my clothes back on.

Failure is the new success


Comments 14

  1. Lovely post. It is so liberating to tell everything about yourself without shame and guilt right?! I have had major problems fitting in and have felt guilty because of that .I am slowly releasing my anger, guilt and shame and I feel so much better. i stopped apologising for who I am.

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    Sos, thank you for dropping by! I see that you are a blogger too. Went to your link and found interesting stuff that I relate to about food, green issues and relationships. Hope you keep blogging because I’ll bet it will give you social confidence and healing in dealing with your feelings. Bloggers are somewhat weird driven people so maybe it’s just not easy to fit in, period. But this blog helps me work through success/failure issues and your blog might be a personal practice for you too. (Eg, I am a failure because my blog traffic isn’t high enough, I don’t have a book deal, etc etc. But I am a success because I’m out and about in the world!)

    And for those of you who have read all this stuff about me before, thanks in advance for your patience in letting me blather on again. I am experimenting with doodles and content for the memoir-ish book that I’m writing. Was having writer’s block until I decided to pull together the chapter as this post. The good thing about blogging vs. drafting a chapter is that I knew I had to get this done, no matter what. Would love to get your feedback on how this post reads and how it can be improved. :)

  3. You are one of the most interesting people I (don’t) know. Thank you for entertaining me and giving me a new tack on my own failures! Great post.

  4. This is so honest and brave, it actually has me feeling emotional. I will have to reflect a bit in order to comment…
    But I’d encourage you not to use the word ”failure” anymore. It takes away your joy. And besides, there may have been mistakes here and there, but none of what you wrote counts as a failure. I don’t see that. Failing means quitting or giving up, noy making a mistake or re-assessing and trying something new. You were a success from the start. Successful on your own time, left-handed and all. But I’ve gotta go wipe my tears now, your post hit the soft spot today. But thanks. Love ya:)

  5. Ms. B —

    This must be the month for heart-on-your sleeve posts ( see/ visit mine at your leisure!). Ms. B … Love your honest self-assessment. Makes for good writing, the conflict … Even conflict within and one “failing” all the way to happiness is a good thing and fun to read. (btw, ever read Dennis Prager’s book on happiness? … Recommended, my friend.)

    Best! Jg.

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    Elle, I’m so glad you dropped me a line! I think my real message is that we need to re-examine how we define “failure.” My problem was that I listened to my parents — haha! Btw, I must add that after a few years, my mom finally became proud of my gig at The Daily News. You know what changed her mind? The security guard in our apartment building was always complimenting my stories.

    Skye, cry, baby, cry! I love a good weeper. And here’s the thing…you know the journalism conventions I went to this summer? The message I heard over and over and over is that it’s important to get out there and do stuff you believe in. Be an entrepreneur. Don’t wait for someone else to sign you up or give you a job — because in this economy, you could be waiting the rest of your life. So you’re right, these moments are not actually “failures” by the new standards of entrepreneurship. :)

    Jg, thank you for sharing your post. You are brave to write about your financial issues. There is freedom in getting it all out online, isn’t there?! And so glad that when the old lady fell, you were the one to stop and take care of her. Makes us appreciate what’s important in this life. Good luck with the finances and we’re here for you too!

  7. I’m going to share this line from one of my favorite books, “The Natural.” It came back into my head the other day when the film version, which uses this quote in a radically different but still poignant way, was playing on TV.

    “We have two lives, Roy, the life we learn with and the life we live with after that. Suffering is what brings us toward happiness.”

    I think that sums up your post Betty.

  8. I am loving this post! The variations on the theme of shame — parent-induced, self-induced, society-induced — are very well sketched out. Like, I’m never complaining again about how much I used to fight with my parents when I was a teen. (But I didn’t have the same cultural challenges — ma & dad are Italian & Irish.)

    I echo Ivan’s comment: tough to know how sweet life can be til you know precisely how wretched it can also be.

    I look forward to reading this chapter of your memoir — will love to read more about your markers for happiness/success.

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    Ivan, how lovely. Thank you for sharing your perspective on this.

    Laura, it’s true, getting to happiness makes the past seems so….bearable. Happiness is also making it possible for me to re-examine my past in a new light. Btw, why should you stop complaining about your parents? If it bothered you, go for it until you get it out of your system!

    Rita, thank you. Always nice to hear from you. :)

  10. Betty,
    Wow your post brings up some emotions! I believe it was Socrates who said “the unexamined life is not worth living”. If we take this as a basis for looking at Success/Failure things are much diffrent than we are often led to believe. I recall my grand-father, who taught High School Math and Music for 40 years, telling me his A students were not the better students. The B and C students often times learned MORE because they struggled with the material. Often times you can get an A by pleasing the teacher. He then told me about a Music class he had in college where he heard from other students “the Professor says he wants original work but if you don’t write like him you will get a bad grade”. So he wrote his music “like the Professor” . He got an A but the professor told hiim he sould “learn to write music in his own way”. This was a class that taught me very little.
    The lessons of life are so much from what goes on a report card, aren’t they? I was a B and C student for the most part. My dad and I would play a little game where he would ask me to add up numbers in my head as I was lying in bed when I was very young. I was able to add double didget numbers in my head at the age of three or four. Yet when I attended elementry school I got terrible grades in math. This continued untill I took Algebra. From that point on I got all A’s.
    Elementry school was hard. The teachers were dumb and the kids were cruel. I had a third grade teacher who hated me and another girl in the class. I think it was her last year teaching and she was sick of us little snots. Me and Laura got on het s__t list before school even started I’m sure. You see the Teachers went on strike that year and were in front of the school picketing for a few weeks. We did our own picketing… of the teachers and the “fine example they were setting for us kids”!
    I never really “fit in” either. I went from that third grade teacher wanting to put me in Special Ed (mostly to get rid of me…I was kind of hyper-active, which is another way of saying I find sitting in a class all day boring ) to taking advanced classes in High School.
    Life wasn’t designed to be easy. It was meant to test us. This is one of the teachings I learned in church. If it were easy we would not learn anything. I served a to year mission which I thought was a total failure.

    My two marriage failed. (First to an English Girl and then to a Peruvian) Here is one thing I learned fro my first marriage: When you wife is asking you to take her boyfriend home, the marriage might be over.
    I have had some sucesses in life yet many of these aren’t going to be known anyone. I found out that my mission wasn’t a failure later in life when I ended up in England dut to Millitary duty. Even now, I often feel that the easiest day was yesterday. Oh well, Atleast that has stayed the same

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