From one sinker to another: just keep failing. Maybe one day you’ll be a professional ping-ponger in New York.
By Jamie Hudalla
The warehouse in St. Louis Park looks like it might hang pig carcasses up on hooks or collect the ghosts of flour mill workers from 1890. My hands shake as I sit in the parking lot, but that has less to do with the warehouse and more to do with my job interview.
I study who I am as I wait an hour and a half in the parking lot. What are your strengths, Jamie? Well, not driving. How do you deal with conflict? I’ve taken a reconciliation class, so, pretty well. What are your career goals? Fiction writing. Pray for me.
I crack a window because I forgot to wear deodorant and it’s a balmy 40 degrees. At 1:55 p.m. I walk in the door of the book manufacturing unit, and a receptionist ushers me to a conference room that smells like dry-erase markers and printer ink. A man named Dieter explains the production assistant position in a thick German accent, then asks me how tall I am.
“You won’t be able to work a lot of the machinery.”
Dieter gives me a tour, showing me the too-tall paper cutters that can lop off fingers. He tells me why the last guy left. Apparently, he flew off to New York to pursue a professional ping-pong career at 60 years old. When we return to the conference room, a Californian comes in and explains his role as a trimmer.
“What’s your experience with rollers?” he asks.
“Um…not a lot. But I’m a quick learner.”
When he leaves, I realize he’s talking about rulers. I need to be able to measure pages to 1/32nd of an inch, I find out on a math quiz. Yes, they’re making an English major do math. Yes, I spend 10 minutes trying to do long division before I realize a calculator sits one-fourth of an inch away from me.
Dieter grades my quiz. It has so many red slashes it looks like a horror flick victim. I ask when I’ll hear back, and Dieter mumbles the mandatory two-week answer.
I’ve buried it in my graveyard of positions that didn’t pan out. As a senior graduating this spring, I’ve started to dip my toes in the pool of rejection, failure, insecurity and, most prominently, fear. The dip in the pool is a rite of passage, even for Bethel’s posterchildren who had jobs lined up by their junior year.
But we’ve been prepared for this. We’ve all encountered failure in the form of TED speakers who are now wildly successful, pastors who slap Jesus on like a Band-Aid and 10-second YouTube clips of people getting injured.
We live in a culture that pits success against failure like Chipotle against Qdoba. This focus might have actually caused people to over-prepare so they avoid sofa-surfing in their parents’ basement. Their assumptions of the worst bring out the best.
“[People are] defensive pessimists because they’re convinced they’ll do worse than they will,” psychology professor Joel Frederickson said.
Defensive pessimism lowers expectations as an act of self-preservation. It’s why people apply for five barista jobs in case they don’t get their ideal one in the nucleus of Minneapolis.
As a writer, part of my job description is excelling in defensive pessimism. Within a month I lost a creative writing competition, got rejected by two grad schools and was turned down for an entry-level publishing job. For a few days I wallowed in existential dread while listening to My Chemical Romance. But while it stung, it didn’t obstruct.
Because success, whatever that looks like, doesn’t mean excelling at what you do. It means failing enough to increase your odds. It means lighting up the elevator like Buddy the Elf, hoping one of the stops gets you somewhere.
This message is coming from someone who oscillates between the confidence of a drunkard singing Spice Girls karaoke and a 16-year-old trying to parallel park. But this message – that failure is a good thing – also comes from Frederickson and a handful of other researchers.
“One of the things a number of us worry about for your generation is that we don’t think you’ve had enough failure experiences,” Frederickson said.
Some of the risk-aversion stems from things like scoreless sports, uber-protective parenting and an increase in smaller families with children who are used to receiving more attention.
But Generation X doesn’t have a copyright on fear of rejection. It’s an innate response in the brain, belonging to all humans. Psychologists have found rejection doesn’t only affect us emotionally, but physically as well. It activates the nociceptors, our nerve endings that detect pain. Tylenol even helps to alleviate the discomfort of rejection.
“In an adaptive way, that pain is helpful,” Frederickson said.
Helpful, because at a progressive level it keeps us from repeating mistakes or getting society’s cold shoulder. So that aforementioned pool we all take a dip in – the one full of fear and insecurities – doesn’t have to result in a waterlogged life.
While this Danny Tanner life lesson is easy to understand, it’s difficult to follow.
I am not fearless. I’m terrified of speaking in front of more than two people, being alone for more than two hours and driving when there’s more than two lanes. But I’m limiting my fear-based decisions.
I am not free of insecurities – but I recognize insecurities are selfish. No one else cares about the weird coloring of my tooth, or remembers when I thought nonchalant was pronounced non-ca-holant. We’re so focused on ourselves we forget everyone is focused on themselves.
Because everyone is susceptible to the sociometer theory of self-esteem, or valuing ourselves based on others’ perceptions of us.
“It isn’t really just the fear of failure,” Frederickson said. “It’s also the fear of failure related to how people are going to see me.”
When I skewered my chances at the book manufacturing company, I didn’t fixate on my lackluster interview. I fixated on telling friends and family I’d had a lackluster interview.
The ironic part? Research shows we need to be in community – we need to share those failures—in order to heal. According to Frederickson, Harvard has a 75-year study proving that a circle of friends is the closest thing to an antidote for the woes of life. Not Tylenol. Not naturally high levels of opioids and endorphins. Not our dream jobs.
So maybe success looks like this: Grab a hand and jump in the pool.