Stumbling Toward Happiness: Or How to Fail Your Way to Success

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Lisa is a freelance writer, consultant and life coach. She has her BA in English and Creative Writing from Princeton and her MPA from Harvard. Lisa recently finished the first draft of her book manuscript, Burning Down the House. Her dream is to publish this first book and teach the world how to discover their hidden joy. Her post day is Tuesday.
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Success and failure sign

I have left a string of failures behind me in my life as I pursue my dreams, as well as, of course, many successes.

Let’s start with the failures.

Some were colossal, or felt that way at the time. They include:

  • Crash-and-burn relationships, including one in particular in which I acted all of 12 as I alternately pouted, begged, praised and cursed the man who was leaving me. I was madly in love. When he decided he was done with me, I fell apart completely. I was 35 and emotionally right back in junior high.
  • A first attempt at applying for grad school years ago, in which I got rejected by not one, not two, but five universities. Ouch! (Up to that point in my life I was so accustomed to academic success that it seemed inconceivable to get a “no” from one, let alone all of the schools where I applied).
  • Numerous jobs I’ve applied for and not gotten.
  • Popular magazines that rejected my query letters, when I’d decided I wanted to write for Redbook or “O.”
  • Men I’ve wanted to date who didn’t want me.
  • There was also, along the way, a failed marriage. We’ll just call it my “starter marriage.”
  • And, of course, the three months of my life, at age 24, when I didn’t want to live at all. When I tried to take my own life. (There is a much longer story behind all of this that has to do with the years of trauma that preceded this depression. But I’ll save that for another time).

As I write in my poem, Ring the bells that still can ring, surviving a suicide attempt was:

…my greatest/failure, the one I am most grateful for.
Somehow just surviving made all other forms of failure pale in comparison, and made risk-taking easier.

Because — here’s the thing.

No matter how many times I try and “fail,” it is a chance to learn and grow. It may lead to the next great thing. And, there’s always another to chance to give it another shot — because I am ALIVE! I love what Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, has to say about failure: “First, allow me to confess that I have failed at 90 percent of the things I have ever attempted.”

“Failure rarely bothers me,” he adds. “I always learn something in the process, and the screw ups provide a nice backdrop of humility for the few times when things work out.”

What an awesome attitude. What if our “failures” were celebrated, fun even? “Ah, that didn’t work, let’s try again!” In the end, life really is a grand experiment. If you are not “failing” at all, maybe you are not trying enough new things, or taking enough risks! Ask any wildly successful person – “failures” are just a part of the journey to success. It is just a matter of using failure to your advantage. As you encounter failures and set backs, you learn what works and what does not.

Embrace your failures and use them as stepping stones on the path towards your greatest dreams.


Lisa powell graham(Lisa has launched her dream by signing up for Ellen Sussman’s “Memoir-in-a-Year” class, speaking her story out loud at a Take Back the Night rally, and committing to a regular writing schedule — 50 pages due by December! Being invited to join was a dream come true, and she looks forward to chronicling her writing process. Lisa is currently bi-coastal with her home in historic Troy, New York and her heart in San Francisco. Lisa’s post day is Tuesday).

  • Rachel, I love it that you used a tough learning experience for you and turned it into a way to help others… Sharing your experience to save others from making the same mistakes. I think that is one of the best ways we can turn “failures” into gold in our own lives – when we can help others through what we have learned.

    Like you said about your ex- as well, sometimes a “failed” relationship can help us learn what doesn’t work for us and create a clearer vision for the future.

    I admire your courage in putting yourself out there to share your story on PinkTruth (and now here!) and applaud you in wanting to make a difference for others. You’re doing it. :-)

    Hope that we can all continue to work this alchemy of turning our perceived failures into successes in the future – learning from our mistakes. Isn’t that a lot of what life is about?

    Life should be a grand adventure, in my book, and if you’re not trying new things, you’re probably not learning a whole lot… I admire you for giving it all a shot and then learning too when it was the right time to walk away.

    You rock :-)


  • Rachel

    Okay I have a slow day today, and I remembered there was more I wanted to say about “what I learned from failure.” Better late than never?

    Years ago, when I was planning to take time off for the new baby my husband and I were adopting, I signed up to do Mary Kay, thinking it was a way to make a little extra money while staying home with my kids. I remember when I started, my favorite old professor said, “I’m sure you’ll be just as successful in this as you are in everything else.” What a nice vote of confidence!

    But in the end, I was far from successful with Mary Kay. Rather than make a little extra money for my family, I lost quite a bit. I wasn’t used to failure, and I didn’t take it well. That experience squashed my self esteem for a long time (more about that in the link I posted with.)

    What I learned from that experience has nothing to do with getting better at selling makeup, or even getting better at business. A year or two after I quit Mary Kay, I decided I would do something to make information more available to people. There were things I wish I’d known before I started, and this was information I wasn’t able to find when I did some research beforehand. But first, I googled to see if anyone else did the same. What I found amazed me.

    I ran into this little community of people who had similar experiences with Mary Kay, and learned more about issues with MLM in general. I learned that sometimes, when you fail, it wasn’t about not working hard, or not being good at it — there are times when we truly are set up to fail, and that’s not really our fault. I learned a lot about how to recognize that situation, just as I learned how to see the signs of a bad relationship from my ex. And I learned how powerful and healing it can be to advocate for others. 5 years later, I still participate in MLM awareness via, and it continues to be rewarding.

  • Kim, the traveler

    Great post. It reminds us that we can’t quit just because we fail the first time. You gotta keep pushing!

  • Heather, the e-commerce builder

    I’m in on the majority of your list – Thanks for sharing! Dilbert is one of my heroes – a tech geek and hilarious. Always a good combination.

  • Julita the indomitability of the human spirit has always amazed me – people survive terrible tragedies, make painful mistakes in their own lives, lose people they love… and keep living. I think that’s why we need each other, as Erika said, to make it through.

    I think knowing that other people love you and having dreams are both key. We all need something to look forward to! And remembering to enjoy the little happy moments in our day-to-day lives, like you wrote about here as well. Life is quite beautiful really. Does not mean it is not difficult sometimes. Lean on me and others sweetheart – am here for you!

    And Darcy – THANK YOU beautiful. I do like either word – experiments or adventures – since I think life is both! I’m happy that I’m still around to share too and happy to be back in touch with wonderful you! :-)

    oh p.s. to Julita – check out the other inspiring posts from the other 7 women on the other days. :-) And someday you will have my books to read too! Working on it! ;)

  • Darcy

    Lisa, you are very brave to share all your so-called failures with the world so publicly. Like you say in your comments, there has to be a better word, though. Experiments? Adventures? Maybe failure is in the eye of the beholder, because I read your list and think not failures, just things that didn’t work out. Anyhow, I’m really glad you’re still here to share them with us.

  • p.s. to Bridget – such an interesting perspective. Makes me wish it was more accepted to reveal our “failures” and mistakes – everyone has some!!! Because I do think they say a lot about us, what we’ve yearned for, what we’ve attempted. Some incredible leaders – take Abraham Lincoln – failed and failed and failed and failed before succeeding. And look at what he accomplished. Never stopped trying, never stopped dreaming.

    • Julita

      Lisa, so great to have your posts to read. sometimes I wonder where can we get energy to keep on going?

      failure after failure how to keep on going?

      helps to have some dreams and to have a goal in life. also helps to have great friends like you.

      I am home sick. just called my boss to tell him I wasn’t coming in to work. hate being sick, and hate calling about it even more.

      wish your posts were daily and not weekly, but at least I can read your comments, :)

  • Kirsty – thanks for reading and commenting, beautiful goddess!!! I SO love your spirit and am so honored to know YOU…

    Here’s to saying YES to your desires and needs!!!! AMEN to that girlfriend!!!

    I do love Alex’s “celebrating failure” bit. High-five to our best, “biggest” “failures”… that helped make us who we are :-)

  • Kirsty

    Gorgeous post Lisa. I am honored to read your story – thank you for sharing with us. Here’s to “celebrating failure” stand-up style (thanks Alex!)…


    Woot woot!!!

  • James, love this: “Failing forward is a great concept. I love failure, it is what makes one stronger and, in my opinion, more open-minded. For without failure, one would not have the capacity to re-think the parameters that were imposed on the original concept in the first place. Once a new way of thinking is embraced, great things can happen.” I agree with all of this, and especially appreciate how you pointed out that failure can make us more open-minded. Yes. I think it levels the playing field, teaches us empathy. NO ONE succeeds at everything all the time. We all have lessons to learn.

    Rachel I, like you, learned a lot from my ex-husband (who is a terrific guy, we just weren’t the right match for each other ultimately). And from some ex-boyfriends – one in particular (the one I wrote about here, who broke my heart!). I am totally confident that I will both be a better partner in a future marriage and choose better this time around – I know MYSELF better, am much more self-aware, and also have a better sense of what I’m seeking in a partner.

    Friend, timing is everything sometimes, right? Sounds like things worked out nicely for you. I love your motto – lots of wisdom there. Someone can say all the right words, yet it is how they act and show up for you over time that truly matters.

    And Julita – I love what you shared about Ellen and Oprah… how true it is that we can find joy in the simple things! Extra meaningful somehow too coming from powerhouse women like that. I know that this has been a rough time in your life sweetheart yet I have total faith that lots of good things are coming for you… Certainly you learned some lessons the hard way (I understand – I have often learned the hard way too!). Remember to take those moments to do the simple things that bring you peace and joy, and to love yourself, as you are, no matter what – you’re wonderful. :-)

  • Julita

    the other day I watched Oprah and Ellen on youtube, the two of them talking about their DOGS, of all things! these two super successful women talked about how much they need their dogs. Oprah said that the only way she can relax is when she takes her 12 year old Sophie (spaniel not a child) for a walk after her travels without a leash on her private property. that is when she feels like a leader, feels at peace. this is Oprah we are talking about! her favorite activity is hiking, hiking which doesn’t cost anything. so we could all feel as fortunate as Oprah when we walk our dog or go for a hike.

    like the rest of us, I have had many failures in my life. only last year I almost lost the love of my wonderful husband because of my affair. I wasted $100,000 on my divorce which never happened. I almost lost my girls who chose to live with their loving father and not with me and my new boyfriend who turned out to be a narcissistic monster. hope I can learn from my mistakes and like Oprah find joy and peace in simple hiking and walking my dog. I guess we can all learn from Oprah!

  • Friend

    I too credit learning from an ex (though not husband) after a relationship that ended badly. The relationship should have ended sooner but continued because I like many people chose to ignore my instincts and refused to see a bunch of little warning signs.

    I ended up adopting a sort of motto. It ended up making it a tad harder for my love to get our relationship started. In retrospect this was probably a good thing as the timing was off and I wasn’t ready. It helped us grow to know each other as friends first and I believe it also helped keep me away from bad and temporary situations.

    “Yes, words are nice but talk is easy and cheap. Don’t just tell me, show me by your actions. Then don’t just show me. Show me through time and then and only then will I believe you.”

  • Rachel

    Ha-hah, “starter marriage”.

    Recently, while “defending” myself from an over-the-top compliment, I said that a lot of the reason so many things work so well in my life is that I’m lucky to have such a good husband. The response I got was, “Give yourself credit for choosing a good husband.” That was a great thought, and when it comes down to it, I do give myself credit for that. I happen to know that a number of women liked my husband before I met him, but never gave him a chance, deciding he was not attractive enough or some such nonsense.

    When it comes down to it, the biggest reason I had so much knowledge about what was really important in a husband, was because my ex husband taught me. He taught me a lot about things that look good on the surface, but don’t really matter much if the substance isn’t there (giving flowers, but never actually helping out with the work isn’t love.) He taught me signs to watch out for that I’d never have known about if I didn’t have that close up experience with them. I learned a lot about what I could live with, and what mattered too much to continue living without over time.

  • bridget

    On the uniquely personal nature of failures and mistakes, Lyn Stegner wrote a passage I copied down a while back: “The unique way we each fail, and the pattern of our mistakes, tells us–and everyone else–who we are, perhaps where we’ve been; sometimes…where we are going. Failure is personal.” [Fata Morgana, p. 83]

  • James

    Failing forward is a great concept. I love failure, it is what makes one stronger and, in my opinion, more open-minded. For without failure, one would not have the capacity to re-think the parameters that were imposed on the original concept in the first place. Once a new way of thinking is embraced, great things can happen. I do think society, in general, does support a the notion that failure is bad. Think about it for a moment…I remember seeing an interview with Madonna where she commented how an album she released was a declared a failure in the media because it sold 6 million copies. Her comment was something like “5-6 million copies a failure, in whose eyes?” Society put that tag failure on it and declared it as such. Yet, a lesser known artist (John Mayer) sells 500,000 albums is then declared a success. By whose definition? Society’s. So, I believe that society does play a big role in defining success or failure, it’s up to us to actively dispute that and teach those closest to us to embrace failure as something positive and also teach them that success is not what we think it is either.

  • Heidi, my dear, you are brilliant… Thanks for this reminder: “I would suggest that it’s not “society” – whatever that is – that doesn’t allow for failure…it’s US. We project our own unreasonable expectations on ourselves onto society as a whole and wind ourselves into knots trying to please everyone and everything. That’s impossible. Objectively impossible.”

    You have always been a shining example for me of someone who is unafraid to speak her own truth – and who lives an amazing life “independent of the good and bad opinions of others.” You’re a goddess. :-) Thanks for showing me what’s possible and for your consistent courage, Heidi.

  • Heidi

    I would suggest that it’s not “society” – whatever that is – that doesn’t allow for failure…it’s US. We project our own unreasonable expectations on ourselves onto society as a whole and wind ourselves into knots trying to please everyone and everything. That’s impossible. Objectively impossible. So, if you look back on the history of the world, people who failed at something (oh, say, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, for example) yet kept going earnestly based on principles are usually held in higher regard than obsessive assholes and perfectionists who pretend that “everything is fine” and really just want everyone to love them arbitrarily. Society isn’t the force that looks down on the impossibility of perfection. It’s us. We do it to ourselves. NO ONE is immune to the shitstorm. NO ONE. It’s honesty and humility that people love the most. Woot.

  • Cath I bet improv would be great for your son… kudos to YOU too for being inspired by all he takes on, and wanting to risk it all – live your dreams! – for his sake, and yours… You go girl!

    Veronica, wish I could be there in person with all of you tonight – I think the group is going to try to Skype me in? Have fun y’all!

  • Veronica

    You can get me on board….I am liking this….see everyone tonight. I am in SLO and have a 5 hour drive to get to you guys, can’t wait to see everyone.

  • Catherine

    I like what Alex does in improvisational comedy. I wonder if I can get my teenage son on board with that. He’s 14 and all about the negativity. I think they live for it – like some sort of badge of honor. “I am a freshman in high school surrounded by people who love me, therefore life sucks.”

    On the flip side, I have never seen a kid try so hard in school, try things that are new and possibly embarrassing and believe in me with all his heart.

    Which make me determined to try and risk failure, get up and try again.

    But I sure can’t wait until he is 15 . . .

  • Ah also here is a great quote (this one from a magnet on my fridge!):

    “Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.”


  • To add to my post as well… to me, “success” really is about living life on your own terms, whatever those may be… I am SO fortunate to live a flexible life with space and time to travel and see family and friends… with great health… an outstanding education… hobbies that bring me great joy (like dancing!)… I pursue all of my goals in life and live my dreams one step at a time and more importantly I LIVE – I enjoy my life. Nothing is guaranteed in life, after all, so we might as well enjoy and live all the days of our lives… That to me is also “success.”

  • Erika, thanks for the beautiful reminder: “We need others to help us back up.” Sometimes I think we feel (I know I have!) we are supposed to do it all ourselves… and we can’t. That’s the beauty of life anyways, that we can all be here for each other…

    And Lynn, Eleanor is one of my heroes :-) and I’ll check out that poem… Thank you for the kind words!

  • Lynn

    Lisa, I recall the words of Eleanor Roosevelt: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

    Too often I see people going through life in victim mode … which in itself can be a self-fulfilling prophesy. Everyone has a choice – a choice to be beaten down by life, or a choice to celebrate the pitfalls as chances to reevaluate and grow.

    One of my favorite poems is “Comes the Dawn” by Veronica A. Shoffstall … and your post today reiterates that beautifully – thanks!

  • And this is (one of the many reasons!) why I love you Alex: “When we transcend fear of failure, and fear of judgment from those failures (because really no one ever comes close to judging us as harshly as we usually judge ourselves), we unleash a creative spirit that can channel humor, solutions, and a sense of adventure that reveals opportunities we never before thought existed.”

    Thanks – that captures what I am trying to say here SO perfectly… Yes. It’s about unleashing the creative spirit and living life as a grand adventure. Amen!

    Thanks for reading and posting my friend – you so rock!

    • Erika

      Indeed, it’s not how we fall but how we get up in life that matters. People are watching to see IF we’ll get back up and how so… And the thing that I’ve learned is this: We need others to help us back up. We can’t live as islands. We need community and each other — God, too — to help us get up…

  • Great advice as usual Lisa!

    In improvisational comedy, one of my favorite exercises is what we call “celebrating failure.” It’s where you go up to the person next to you, throw your hands up in the air with excitement, and exclaim a recent failure with vigor and enthusiasm.

    This is really powerful. When we transcend fear of failure, and fear of judgment from those failures (because really no one ever comes close to judging us as harshly as we usually judge ourselves), we unleash a creative spirit that can channel humor, solutions, and a sense of adventure that reveals opportunities we never before thought existed.

    Carrying around any anxiety or stress due to fear of failure, judgment, or loss is the equivalent of plugging up pipes. Eventually the joy of life drips away not because joy is impossible to feel anymore, or because it’s run dry, but because we haven’t learned how to keep those channels clean and free of, for lack of a better word, gunk.

  • One more thought on this: defines failure as: “The condition or fact of not achieving the desired end or ends.”

    Success is defined as: “The achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted” or “the gaining of fame or prosperity.” “Success” is such a loaded word in our society. (Are you rich, famous? because even if you had to sell your soul to get there, surely THAT is success…)

    I would argue that sometimes what “looks” like failure turns out to be a blessing in disguise. With hindsight, I’m happy that the relationships that didn’t work out didn’t – they weren’t the best matches for me.

    I have loved the twists and turns of my life including the perceived “failures,” and all that I have learned.

    Now that said, I used to really struggle with “failing” at ANYTHING – I was an A+ student who wasn’t used to making mistakes. I had to “learn” how to make mistakes without judging myself too harshly.

    The good news is that the more risks I take in life, the more “mistakes” I make, the more I live my dreams, and the more fun it is!

    For me success now is about being a good and loving person, following my heart to live my dreams in the world, doing the things I want to do in my life. It’s about giving back to society while also having the most possible FUN – a life of service and adventure.

    How do YOU define failure and success? And what have your “failures” taught you about life?

  • p.s. a happy post-script: I DID get into grad school the second time I tried (Harvard, not bad!). I have learned so much about myself from past “failed” relationships and am so grateful for that. And the jobs I didn’t get? A blessing too, since I’ve created a work life for myself that I love for the past eight years – a mix of consulting and writing. And, my flexible life has allowed me to travel extensively… Trust me, my life is quite wonderful, really.

    I think sometimes I wish our society could redefine it’s take on “failure.” Life is SUPPOSED to be an experiment in my book – we are here to learn and grow, aren’t we? And beware of anyone who tells you they have ALL the answers. We are all making it up as we go.

    Here’s to learning from our mistakes, and inventing life as we go… and having FUN with it!