Failure Sucks

The feeling of failure sucks. It’s the kind of punch that beats your pride to a pulp. It’s a hallowing mood that lingers for days upon days. It’s a sting that leaves you silent, quieting the voices of your dreams. The feeling of failure sucks.

But failure itself, I’m learning, is a magic kind of potion. It’s a transformative element, like an agent causing a chemical reaction. It spurs action, wakes up sleeping giants, sheds light on things previously unobserved.

For the last eight months, I’ve spent all of my free time working on, thinking about, planning around the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. Every year, the prestigious program picks between 6–8 people from around the world and brings them to Stanford for a year of learning. The journalists featured in the Oscar winning movie Spotlight, were all JSK fellows. Countless initiatives to strengthen the practice of journalism have come out of this one year gift of time and collaboration. For some people, going back to school is the last thing on their mind. For me, it would’ve been a dream come true. Our industry is bleeding, imploding, struggling to survive. We’ve all seen the death happen by a thousand cuts or more accurately a thousand layoffs. The opportunity to think about new ways of re-inventing this industry that I love, on the grounds of one of the best universities in the world, was my holy grail. So, I gave it the time and commitment it deserved. All my days off, all my evenings, and every morsel of free time a working mom could muster in between poured into crafting the very hefty application.

I made it pretty far. All the way to the end. A finalist. A small group of 452 journalists from around the world. And then on some random Friday, while sitting in my Mom’s kitchen, my toddler fighting off the arm of his jacket from a determined dad ready to go home, I got an email that would end the dream with a dull thud. Didn’t make the cut. That pride-punching blow. That silencing sting. That hallowing mood that whispers all sorts of taunting nonsense into your brain.

The feeling of failure sucks. No amount of everything-happens-for-a-reason-you’ll-get-them-next-time-but-oh-be-proud-of-just-how-far-you-got soothing from the very best of everyone you love, helps. No amount.

But failure itself, I’m learning, is the spark that can light a fire.

First, the process. The process is the point.

I worked on that application on the floor of play centres, stealing the minutes (ten at most) when my toddler was too engrossed in playing at the train table to notice that mommy was *gasp* not within arm’s length, his short ones, not mine.

I worked on that application in the middle of the night, when the house would finally be quiet enough to allow some undisturbed thinking.

All at once, I felt a camaraderie with every stranger in the world who was silently working on something, alone. For the first time, I thought about the writer toiling on an unfinished book. The parent addressing some middle-of-the night crisis. The person, lying in the bed, staring at the ceiling wondering how they’re going to make something work: a business, a relationship, an idea. Anyone, out there, working away on anything that meant something to them. All of a sudden, I cheered them on. If I was up at 3am, alone, chiseling at my little personal universe, I had no doubt someone else was doing the same. Good for you, I would whisper to nobody. Keep going, who cares if no one knows.

More than being a lonely endeavour, sometimes the application demanded I do a lot of asking, from a lot of people. It’s not easy to ask people you admire, people who are your bosses and people who are just plain busy, for help. Recommendations, copy-editing, bouncing boards. It requires revealing your dreams. Big or small, that’s a naked act. But it turns out, that very naked act affords you something. By virtue of entering the race, you reveal your supporters. A small cheerleader of dedicated friends started to gather around me, like those valiant volunteers at marathons who line the sidelines, pumping fists in the air or handing out water bottles to runners on their last legs.

The process is the point.

Over the last eight months, I’ve read and researched more about the seismic changes happening in my industry than ever before. It’s not that I didn’t care before, I just didn’t make the time. A funny thing happens when you’re busy working at your job. You don’t have the time to think about it, raise questions about it, dream up new ways to do it. Writing the application forced a kind of introspection that, I believe, is crucial in an age where the running motto is: evolve or die.

I discovered that journalists from around the world, including those in my own backyard, are taking that bull of a motto by the horns. They’re launching businesses, finding new ways to collaborate, modernizing formats, all in the name of storytelling and truthtelling.

The feeling of failure sucks. But failure itself, I’m learning, is a powerful magnifying glass. A lens through which you see more clearly, what needs your attention.

Which brings me to why I felt inspired to write this. This week, JSK released their 6 chosen international fellows. Every single one, an example of a journalist daring to innovate the industry in their own way. These six strangers, a salve to my self-enforced week of self-pity. It’s an honour just to be nominated, as they say.

If, like me, you have a love for this industry and the craft of storytelling, take yourself down the rabbit hole of finding out more about the fellows, their challenges, the program itself, this new term of “journalism entrepreneurship”, apps, orgs, new shows, all falling under the umbrella of journalism as it will become. There’s so much stuff. All of it fascinating. All of it applicable to the precarious state of the industry, as it stands right now. And some of it just pure antidote to the malaise that so many of us working journalists feel on a daily basis.

The feeling of failure sucks. But failure, I’m learning, is the only way forward.
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