“Letting go isn’t the end of the world. It’s the beginning of a new life.” ~Unknown
Ever since I was young, I have been intensely driven and very goal-focused. I have never been the type to flip-flop and I have never been the type to start something I do not intend to finish.
Recently, I was faced with the incredibly difficult decision to leave the career path I had committed myself to. In the process, I learned quite a lot about my definition of “failure” and what happens when we allow ourselves to move on.
About three months after completing my undergraduate degree, I applied for and was accepted into a Master’s program within which I began studying midwifery. As a chronic and hugely enthusiastic student, I poured my heart into my training.
In addition to seeing clients and attending births, I read everything I could about the field, I took classes, I attended conferences, I networked with other midwives and apprentices, and I talked at length about the experience to anyone who would listen.
Being a student midwife defined me, and I applied huge significance to the direction it provided.
For the better part of a year, everything went beautifully. I was happy, I felt filled with unique purpose and excitement, and I genuinely loved what I was doing. And then one day I woke up and realized “This is not right for me.”
The realization was truly that sudden, and the certainty with which I felt it nearly knocked me off my feet.
Suddenly, I was confronted with the prospect of abandoning something for the first time in my life. Suddenly, I was confronted with what felt, to me, like failure.
Most of us aren’t great at this—“failure,” that is—and we live in a world that doesn’t often offer much of a grace period for finding yourself or trying things that don’t work out.
We are largely expected to define our purpose and then stick to it, for better or for worse. The majority of us are taught that failure, quite simply, is not an option.
But here is what I realized when I came face to face with my own moment of “failure”: in order to live a fulfilling and fully formed life, failure needs to be an option.
To insist upon stamping out failure is like insisting upon banishing rain and enjoying only cloudless days—failure is an essential piece of the experience, and, indeed, it is sometimes a better teacher than success.
So, what can we do when “failure” stares us in the face and insists upon becoming a reality? Here are five tips:
1. Ask yourself good questions and then listen for the answer.
When I first began talking to my partner about the possibility that I would leave midwifery, I already knew what I was going to do. I had my mind made up, I just wanted him to tell me that I wouldn’t be branded as flaky or indecisive if I did decide to pursue something different.
I wanted him to tell me that the world wouldn’t fall apart if I chose to go down another path.
There is nothing wrong with seeking reassurance and validation from the people we value, but we must also be sure to make room our own voices to come through. In situations like this, most of us already know what we need to do; we simply need to honor ourselves enough to truly listen.
2. See it for what it is.
Before I made the decision to leave my budding profession, I agonized over what would happen when I was gone. I lost sleep over how my colleagues would view me and what my absence would do to the clinic.
It took awhile for me to realize that each of these things was borne from ego. Well-meaning ego—ego focused on the good of the whole—but ego nonetheless. The truth was, my absence would not make or break anything.
Once I realized this, I felt much more free to make my decisions based upon true desire rather than a sense of uneasy obligation. If we can learn to zoom out and view a situation from a place of distance, we can often gain a better handle on the truth of the matter.
Very few things in life truly center around us the way that our ideas about obligation and responsibility would have us believe. And while a sense of obligation and responsibility are both important things, there is freedom in realizing that we are not actually the point around which everything orbits.
Knowing this allows us to break free and follow something different without believing that the world as we know it will collapse if we aren’t there to hold it up.
3. Take from it what you can.
Every experience in life offers us something, and it is important to remember this when we are faced with a transition into something new.
Yes, I spent a great deal of time and money on something I ultimately chose not to finish, but I witnessed beautiful births and I built relationships I will never forget. I came to the bottom of myself time and time again, and, as a result, I was forced to grow in ways I would not have had I not chosen to study midwifery.
Even though I ultimately stepped off of the path I was on, I took countless lessons with me, and, because of that, the experience simply cannot be counted as a loss.
Very few things are truly for naught, in the end. Most situations, regardless of outcome, provide us with a wealth of things to take away with us to ensure that we are stronger, smarter, braver, and better down the road. Our job is simply to find these things and make the best possible use of them.
4. Let yourself rest.
Part of me knew all along that I jumped into that Master’s program because I was uncomfortable with what I perceived as stillness. I had been so intensely proactive for so many years that I did not know how to rest and allow myself to be guided over time.
Although I did truly love midwifery, I know that I committed to it at a point in my life that wasn’t ideal simply because I felt I needed to be doing something. Simply because, back then, I thought that doing something—anything, really—would prevent me from seeing myself as inactive or stalled-out.
Now that I’ve done that, I know not to do it again. Although uncertainty is a difficult place to be, it is infinitely more productive to think, lie in wait, and go slowly than it is to lunge at the first thing that presents itself.
5. Forgive yourself.
After I had made my decision to leave, I had a hugely difficult time forgiving myself for making the decision in the first place. I berated myself for spending so much time, energy, and money. I convinced that I had let people down and I battered myself for not “getting it right” the first time around.
In retrospect, these were cruel thoughts and they didn’t ultimately help me figure out where I was going.
When we feel like we have ‘failed’ it can be hard not to enter into critic-mode, but doing so won’t serve us in the long run. Instead, we would be wise to remember the words of Thomas Edison: “I have not failed, I have simply found 10,000 ways that don’t work.”
In the end, we cannot think of these things as failures. Instead, we must think of them as lessons. We must think of them as gifts and opportunities. We must take from them what we can and be grateful that we had the opportunity to experience what we did.
Most importantly, we must allow ourselves to move on, realizing full well that we did not fail; we were simply brave enough to acknowledge the truth and seek out something better.
Changing paths image via Shutterstock