How to Fail

Sometimes I see an announcement that a friend or former colleague from back in my working days has gotten a promotion or taken a new position and it makes me stop. These people certainly deserve every success and I wish them well, but then a pang of jealousy gives me a twinge and I feel a little sick and sad and bitter and small.

When I first found out I was pregnant, and throughout my pregnancy, I always thought I’d go back to work. It seemed like what I’d naturally do, as an ambitious, intelligent adult. In fact, a few people were even surprised that I was having a child at all, given my personality and professional drive. This observation struck me as odd since I’d always pictured myself as a parent (someday) and a working person and so I figured I’d just work it out as so many people do.


This is not the last agency I worked for, but it was pretty great.

But then I didn’t go back. There were many reasons, too many to detail here, but the long and short of it was that the opportunity in the role that I left seemed less interesting and less important than the new role I’d taken on as Mother. So I resigned.

That was more than 6 years ago.

Most days I count myself lucky that it was even possible for us to pull this off. My husband is helpful and involved and has a job that almost always allows him to be home for an early dinner. My kids are healthy and funny and creative and are enrolled in school programs where they are nurtured and encouraged and loved. We have wonderful friends and a lovely home and things could be much, much worse.

I know I’m lucky.  

But then there’s the Path Not Taken. One where I went back into the belly of the beast that was/is advertising and made that role what I wanted it to be. Where I was appropriately rewarded with advancement and new challenges. Where I had to juggle the impossible schedules and guilt that working mothers do while making it all seem effortless in the office. Where I updated my LinkedIn profile regularly with new-and-improved titles and skills and accolades.

Woulda. Coulda. Shoulda. As they say.

And just as I’m sliding into a bit of a funk, I realize: I don’t want to be that person.

The person I was more than 6 years ago wanted to be that person, but she isn’t me anymore. I’m not her. It’s like I am upset about losing a race that I quit miles and miles before. Or maybe never even entered. 

Don’t get me wrong – I celebrate the achievements of those who have earned them. I am thrilled for their successes and live a grown up, glamorous life online vicariously through them. I want them to succeed because they are my friends and they want this and so I want for them to get what they want. 

But I realize that I don’t want it. Not anymore.

Famous working mother J.K. Rowling said, “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”

I have chosen this life, happily. It doesn’t make me less driven or intelligent. Old habits are hard to break and that tiny part of me who will always be the ad executive wants to be in the room where it happens, too.

But that’s not the life that I live now.  

In the life that I live now, I will not be the promoted with fanfare and public acclaim. In a world where that’s the definition of success, anything less is obviously a failure. By that standard I have clearly failed.

In the life that I live now, success is a morning without (too much) spilled milk, completing Lego projects and managing sibling diplomatic relations and keeping a house that’s clean enough and remembering which library books are due and field trip chaperoning and creating family dinners where we sing the ABC’s and evenings of books and lullabies and finally quiet exhaustion with the man who loves me. Whom I love.

If I were still in that other world, who knows, perhaps I’d be the one on the cover, in the headline, at the big kids’ table. But in my world, I’m totally winning.

And that’s worth celebrating, too.