In an election season, the parameters of failure take on a special poignancy: Some people are going to be losers. Publicly.
Anyone who actually runs for office must have unshakeable self-confidence, you would assume. After all, the job requires lots of public speaking — the number-one phobia of humankind — and the kind of nothing-is-sacred personal scrutiny that would send most of us into permanent, Greta Garbo-style seclusion. Running for office requires other things, too, but that’s another story.
This story is about failure. Formative failure — the kind of misstep, big or small, that changes you forever. That makes you feel like an idiot, a jerk, a worm or other lowly life form, but that gives you a new understanding of yourself and/or others. And if you’re smart, sooner or later you crawl out from under the rock of abject humiliation and transform the worm into a butterfly. Or something like that.
Even winning politicians have failed something, somewhere, along the way to adulthood. So have we all, be it flunking algebra, not making the track team, losing a relationship, or avoiding a personal goal, such as exercising or learning to play the piano.
Writer Neil Steinberg published a book in 1994 entitled Complete & Utter Failure: A Celebration of Also-Rans, Runners-Up, Never-Weres and Total Flops. Never heard of it? That’s because the book was a flop, too — that is, it didn’t make the best-seller list. It may have been because, as Steinberg himself suggested, Americans are far less willing to muse about failure than the citizenry of older and more embattled nations. “Americans are still moving forward, winning, doing, scheduling meetings,” he writes. “The gales of decline may be rattling the windows, but we’re still snugly ensconced in our Great Period, at least in our own minds, with a frontier to be explored, a world to be set right, money to be made, and the losers and complainers to be shunted into oblivion.”
Steinberg may accurately peg an American can-do stereotype, but on the other hand he fails to take into consideration another American quirk: our obsession with what’s wrong with us. Not thin enough, not rich enough, not famous enough, not wearing the right shoes.
But Steinberg set a literal stage for his own lifelong obsession with failure in a compelling introduction to the subject. He describes his first, and last, venture into show biz, in the family garage, at age 4 — a magic trick he had learned on “Captain Kangaroo” and attempted to perform for a small cluster of neighborhood kids. As it turned out, he hadn’t really learned the trick at all, and his fumbling, red-faced efforts to pull it off resulted only in the audience drifting away in disinterest.
Steinberg recalls the feeling of supreme idiocy — a new feeling, but one with which he would become, he says, very familiar.
Considering what a defining moment failure can be, and the profound state of mind that accompanies it, psychological studies on the subject are surprisingly scant. Of course, we’re talking about mental constructs that are devilishly difficult to measure. “Two things come to mind,” informs Bruce Compas, professor and Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of Vermont. “There’s lots of research on the attribution of failure, that is, holding oneself accountable” for a negative situation such as an illness. In other words, self-blame.
“The second thing is avoidance,” Compas says. “Trying to push away negative feelings in response to loss and failure — that’s the bad side of the story. On the positive side, it’s the effort to find some kind of positive meaning from a failure. There is evidence that people who experience setbacks, if they can reframe it in some kind of positive way, they learn something from the experience or the world, find some sense of meaning or significance. This is clearly associated with better psychological outcomes.”
It’s impossible to know how things might have turned out if we had taken “the road not taken,” as Robert Frost put it. But maybe that thing you “failed,” or avoided, turned you in the direction of something far more fulfilling. The Buddhists recommend seeing every so-called “failure” as an opportunity for growth and change. Sage advice. But meanwhile, if you can’t see the silver lining glistening just ahead of your latest blunder, pay heed to the words of the following Vermonters who have failed beautifully.
Ben Cohen, cofounder, Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Inc., Jericho
I have a whole flood of things — much of my life has been a formative failure. I failed to be a normal weight, athletic boy as a child. There were a lot of times I would split my pants at school and ended up in the nurse’s office trying to sew them up. When you had to chose up sides for teams, I wasn’t chosen, I was considered kind of handicapped. I think it made me more concerned about people who were discriminated against or not given a fair shake, people who were subjected to prejudice. It’s not so good in terms of body image — the same thing that is our greatest weakness is sometimes our greatest strength. But if life hands you lemons, make lemonade.
Peter Clavelle, mayor of Burlington
I’ve had a number of incidents like that: losing a race in high school for class president, being cut from the football team at Rice High School, not making the Little League team in Winooski. Probably the most poignant failure was losing the mayor’s race in 1993. You throw yourself into a campaign, do the best you can in both a job and a campaign, and it’s a very emotional moment to be rejected by the citizenry. I’ve learned through a series of failures, including a failed marriage, that you pick yourself up and you move on. You take what you can from the experience. You take time to heal, but you move on.
Tammy Fletcher, vocalist with the Disciples Eden
Sometimes I think there were points in my kid’s development that I was a complete failure as a parent, even though he’s a spectacular human being. I am a failure at housework, I’m so disorganized. Another is as a musician: I don’t play an instrument, and that to me is one of the most painful things in my life. Every time I’ve tried, I can’t do it, I can’t focus. I set up all these blocks to learning. I actually wanted to learn piano when I was young, but lessons were given to my sister, not to me. I think somehow that has made me think I didn’t deserve it, or it wasn’t destined for me. Now, since the death of my friend Andy Shapiro, I’m determined to learn. He offered to teach me so many times, and now he’s gone, and I couldn’t take the time to learn. I promised him that before the end of my life I will learn to play the piano. If I only would take the chance to cross that barrier — it’s totally fear-based, and time-management-based. I don’t feel equal to the musicians, and I think studying music would open up a whole new world to me. Oh, and I’m looking for a free piano!
Ruth Dwyer, Republican representative from Orange County, running for governor, Thetford
I lost the school board election once, so a few months later I ran for the legislature instead, and won. That was a good example in politics where you can take what looks like a failure and set your sights even higher. If you look at Lincoln or Winston Churchill, they lost a lot of elections. I think Churchill lost more elections than anyone, but he became one of the most important leaders at a crucial time in history. It’s all a matter of how you look at it.
John O’Brien, campaign director for Fred Tuttle, filmmaker of Man with a Plan, Tunbridge
At Harvard I had a friend who ran cross-country, and he decided to run some track. I said, ‘Oh, I’ll go with you.’ I’d never run track before, just high school baseball and soccer. On one of the first days the coach pointed at me and some other guys, and lined us up on the track. I was in front, running as hard as I could, and everybody passed me before the first half of the first lap was over. I was really trying to run much too fast. I was in terrible shape, but thought maybe I have some God-given talent here. It became one of the most excruciating moments of my life. I was winded, cramping, a huge stress factor, but I had to run the last lap. People started clapping and encouraging me, which made it much worse. By the time I crossed the finish line I was a wreck — my body and my ego. And no one talked to me afterwards. After that I realized that some things you can do with your mind and some things you can do with your body, and that I’d better stick to the things I could do with my mind. It was a defining moment.
John Tucher, director of the Racial Justice and Equity Project at the Peace & Justice Center, Burlington
I was very young — 19 — when I got married the first time, and had two children very young. I didn’t hold up my end of the marriage, and for three or four years it cost me my children. I began to listen to my mom and the women in my family how not to ever let that happen again. My kids lost, I lost and we all lost because of my failure as a husband. That made me take stock of myself — I looked at the difference between being a male and a man. It was very painful, because my children are the center of my being. Happily, I was able to start seeing them again.
John Engels, writer, professor of English at St. Michael’s College, Burlington
When I was in the fifth or sixth grade at St. Joseph’s School in South Bend, Indiana, I had a friend named Donald Diedrich who suffered meningitis, or sleeping sickness. He was a sort of math genius, but after the disease he changed, he babbled all the time, and the kids made fun of him. One day I was waiting for my mother to pick me up, and Donald was there. I was ashamed that I didn’t like him anymore, after he had been my friend. Some tough kids started to pick on him, poking at and hitting him. Though I was afraid of the boys I intervened and asked them to stop. I took Donald to lead him away. But then I felt this heavy hand clamp down on the back of my neck and it was Mr. Corbett, a parent who had come to pick up his own kid. All he’d seen was Donald crying and me with my hand on his arm, and he told me he was ashamed of me and that he knew my parents, and he sort of shoved me and I fell into Donald, knocking him down, and then my mother was standing there, and Mrs. Diedrich. I tried to explain, and so did Donald, but he was talking so fast no one could understand him. I’ll never forget how I felt that afternoon, the terrible unfairness of it all, when I had set out to defend Donald and, instead of justice, I was seen as the criminal and shamed in front of my classmates and the other parents.
The next day in school Sister Dominica called me into the office, and I had a note from my mother. The Sister explained to me that, though I had been dealt with unjustly, it was good for my soul, because it countered pride and taught humility. She also explained that God had afflicted Donald with this terrible disease and changed forever, and that while some might feel that God had treated Donald — who had never harmed anybody, who was a brilliant boy — with injustice, we could never understand God’s ways, and must have faith that everything is for the best. I came out of that never understanding why God had chosen him to punish, and I guess it was the first time I had ever questioned anything in my Catholic upbringing. I don’t know if that kind of cynicism is a strength or weakness, but it was an epiphany.
Barbara Snelling, Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, Shelburne
I ran for class president in a new school, and I won in the first year, which was 7th grade, and in 8th grade. In the 9th grade I was defeated. I think I’d taken it for granted and assumed it didn’t take a special effort. I was rather depressed about losing because I wasn’t used to it, and I wondered if I wasn’t liked anymore.
Subsequently I decided to do something about it, and I worked harder at making friends and finding out where I had gone wrong — or indeed if I had gone wrong. Because it’s perfectly legitimate for another person to have a chance at a high school election, of course. But I went back and was elected president in the 10th and II th grades, and student government president as a senior. I think I learned how to stay in touch with my classmates and build relationships.
Stephen West/Cherie Tartt, drag diva, television host Burlington
I was extremely, painfully shy in high school. I tried very hard to overcome that by going out for speech and debate and that sort of thing. I wasn’t very good at it. It traumatized me to get in front of class to make a speech, I would get physically sick. Getting up on stage in high school in plays helped me to overcome that. Another thing was I took piano lessons, and piano recitals were terrifying. There was one at my church, I can’t remember the name of the song, but I had to play it from memory. I got up there and made every mistake you could make. I stopped and composed myself and started over again. I felt about two inches tall. Now I’m recognized by people on the street. Cherie Tartt incorporates in her act forgetting her lines — now I just work with it when I get those blanks. I don’t stop the show anymore, I just keep going. Things like that were horrifying and traumatic at the time, but they really do make you a better person.
Roddy Cleary, affiliate minister at Unitarian Universalist Society Burlington
The most dramatic change in my life was leaving the convent, but I didn’t perceive it as a failure even at that time, although some other people did. I felt liberated by my studies in theology, but I was leaving and moving organically into something that felt like an ongoing process. I was perceived by some as a defector — this was in 1969 — being an ex-nun has its own stigma. But it felt so right, I couldn’t have felt clearer about the decision. Some people said, ‘Oh that must have been so difficult for you,’ I almost felt guilty that it wasn’t.
But I do have a lot of fear. I did this thing called an enneagram and got in touch with the dominant emotion in my life, fear. According to the enneagram, the only way to function is to become counter-phobic. So if something really scares me, I feel that’s what I must do, I’m drawn to it. When I was invited to be interim minister at the Unitarian Church, I was terrified, instead of feeling, ‘Oh this is exciting.’ My son Neil surprised me when he heard about it. He said, ‘Oh, mom, go for it. I would do that.’ He really valued what that community stood for and saw it as a place where I might find my next vocation. It figured into my decision, definitely.
David Sleeper, Publisher of Vermont Magazine, Cornwall
Mine was a job I failed to get. I had applied for a job as editor of the Dartmouth alumni magazine. I was one of two finalists out of 100 applicants. I was desperate to stay in Vermont because where I was working, Country Journal magazine, was moving to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, from Manchester. I’d put all my hopes into that job. After many interviews, including a 10-hour day where I was interviewed by 12 people, I didn’t get the job. I thought it was the end of my working life. Literally the next day I was on my way to Harrisburg. It was because of that failure to get the job that it got me thinking about my life in publishing and led me to start my own company, Vermont Magazine. In restrospect I’m delighted that it all happened, even though it was one of the most disappointing moments of my life.
Fran Stoddard, associate professor of Champlain College, and host of “Points North,” Williston
When I was in fourth grade the school I went to had a track, one end was for elementary and the other was for junior high school. We were going to have a race around the whole track. I’d never done it before, but I was a good athlete. We started running and I was in the lead. When I got out by the junior high part, one of the boys said, ‘Whoa, look at that little girl go!’ I felt great, but then I got about three fourths of the way and I ran out of steam. Others started passing me. By the time we ended I was about seventh or eighth. No one talked to me or told me about pacing myself. Here I had this shining moment and then utterly failed. I took away a couple of things: first, an awareness about being a girl and it wasn’t right for me to win. I don’t know why it struck me, I’d never thought that before. Also, that you have to have a better sense of where you have to go, and pace yourself. I also realized how important it was to have somebody cheer me on — I’ll never forget that voice. It was a lot of lessons in that one incident — they become different realizations when you get older.
Sensei Sunyana Graef, teacher/priest at the Zen Center, Shelburne
It’s a matter of perspective whether one chooses to be a failure. Since I’ve been practicing since the age of 20, I’ve seen things as stepping stones. It’s truly an opportunity to grow and learn — the “failure” fixes you at that moment, solidifies you as something terrible that happened and you can get stuck in it, or you can see it as, ‘well here’s another opportunity in this wonderful life I have.’
This was a very important thing for me: I was not coordinated or athletically inclined at all, I didn’t do well at gym or sports. There was one time when I was probably in ninth or tenth grade when we were being tested. For some reason, I began to think, even though I’ve never done this before, it is possible to do it. I see others doing it. I envisioned myself being one of these other people who could jump over the vault. I felt I was them, there was no difference. For the first time I was able to do these things with absolutely no problem. What that taught me was I wasn’t this limited individual — my capabilities were far greater than anything I had imagined.
William Folmar, owner of Waterfront Video, Burlington
In tenth grade I was so awfully shy, I took a speech class, and it was awful for me to get up and give a big speech. I was so terrified on the day I was supposed to give my final speech, I didn’t even show up for class. I got an F. So for a number of years I was just terrified of public speaking. In college I got into radio and that was different. Then as a senior I took a public speaking class with this venerable old teacher who was friendly and nice, but really tough. We’d done a couple of speeches and I’d done okay, but the third one was, you had to promote a thing or an idea without referring to it directly. He had told us, ‘do not ever bring food or drink to this class.’ I had a topic and didn’t like it, so 15 minutes before the class I was prepared to not go and say I was sick. But then someone told me this idea and I decided to try it. I ran across the campus, got all hot and sweaty, and ran back into class with this Coke in my hand. The teacher said, ‘Mr. Folmar, you know you’re not supposed to bring drink into the class.’ I whispered to him, ‘this is the thing I’m going to promote.’ I just got up there and hid behind the Coke and said some dumb things, and I got an A. Something changed for me after that — I learned you can wing it. I’d also never been that publicly audacious about something before.
Jim Branca, guitarist/vocalist for Bloozotomy, Fairfax
The only mistake is the one you don’t learn from. What comes to mind is, I quit my day job at Kinko’s for a record deal. My name was in Billboard, we were supposed to record at POP Studios in Santa Monica, I met John Tesh, I was totally starstruck. I immediately signed on the line without consulting a lawyer or anything. It turned out the guy had made all these promises he couldn’t keep. I got a lawyer then and got out of the contract, and had to go back to my job with my tail between my legs. The band broke up, I totally lost face. I learned that you can’t go through life leaning forward, you need to be able to walk out of any deal that’s presented to you. I learned after 10 years in Hollywood that the greatest person that can discover you is you.
Doug Racine, lieutenant governor, running for reelection, Richmond
I lost a couple of different races, these were stumbles along the way, but I still wanted to try it again. I ran for student council at Burlington High School three times and lost three times. But I decided there were other ways for me to be involved in the school. I didn’t walk away from putting myself out there, and in adulthood I wanted to be involved in real government. There’s a lesson here: persevere. Those experiences teach you to be humble ... I had my ego squashed when I was a kid and I wanted to play baseball but I was miserable at it. What you learn is to look for something else in which you can excel.