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How Can Success Still Make You Feel Like A Failure?

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How Can Success Still Make You Feel Like A Failure?

How Can Success Still Make You Feel Like A Failure?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

So on the show today, we are learning from failure. And there's something kind of deceiving about failure stories, right? Because when someone talks about how they failed miserably, you know that the story is always going to end with a success. I mean, how often do people, like, stand up and say I'm here to talk about my failures, and, by the way, I'm still a failure, I have not succeeded.

LIDIA YUKNAVITCH: Right. I think about this, and I write about this all the time. Sometimes there is no rise. That narrative of sin and redemption that we're all hoping for, sometimes you're just you in your life and you don't rise at all. You just keep going. And that's more accurate for me than the weird fiction of, you know, well, I rose from my mistakes, and I heard an angel sound and everything was beautiful.

(LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Oh, before I forget, Lidia, can you introduce yourself, please?

YUKNAVITCH: My name is Lidia Yuknavitch, and I'm a writer.

RAZ: Lidia wrote a memoir called "The Chronology Of Water," and it's about a different kind of failure, the kind where you feel like a failure for not fitting in.

YUKNAVITCH: I think failure is part of all of us. But, yes, I think there's something deeper underneath that, which is you're not fitting the stories out there that tell you how to be a person and have an identity. That's a harder, deeper feeling than just I'm embarrassed (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's a feeling of failure that some of us, with time, can work our way out of. But some of us just can't. Here's Lydia on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

YUKNAVITCH: Somewhere in my early 30s, the dream of becoming a writer came right to my doorstep. Actually, it came to my mailbox in the form of a letter that said I'd won a giant literary prize for a short story I had written. The short story was about my life as a competitive swimmer and about my crappy home life and a little bit about how grief and loss can make you insane. The prize was a trip to New York City to meet big-time editors and agents and other authors. So kind of it was the wannabe writer's dream, right?

You know what I did the day the letter came to my house? Because I'm me, I put the letter on my kitchen table, I poured myself a giant glass of vodka, with ice and lime, and I sat there in my underwear for an entire day just staring at the letter. I was thinking about all the ways I'd already screwed my life up. Who the hell was I to go to New York City and pretend to be a writer? Who was I? I'll tell you. I was a misfit, like legions of other children.

I came from an abusive household that I narrowly escaped with my life. I already had two epically failed marriages underneath my belt. I had flunked out of college not once, but twice and maybe even a third time that I'm not going to tell you about. But the real reason I think I was a misfit is that my daughter died the day she was born, and I hadn't figured out how to live with that story yet. So you see I'd missed fitting in to just about every category out there - daughter, wife, mother, scholar. And the dream of being a writer was really kind of like a small, sad stone in my throat.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: When you won that prize - right? - and you get this letter and you're thinking, who was I? I mean...

YUKNAVITCH: Yeah.

RAZ: I mean, it's - imagine you sitting in your kitchen, you know, sort of saying, I don't belong there. I'm just a - I'm a nobody.

YUKNAVITCH: Yeah. So I wasn't sitting there feeling like a failure exactly or a loser. I was just feeling invisible and worthless. Like, I didn't have proper weight or worth. I mean, I already knew the fact that I was still alive was a giant success. What I didn't know was how to feel worth to others. And so any kind of prize that came my way just made me laugh. (Laughter) And then I have to take myself through the steps of, well, worth is in everyone. And we have to help each other feel it. And I can kind of get to a place where, yeah, I could go sit at that table, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

YUKNAVITCH: It was pretty much in spite of myself that I got on that plane and flew to New York City, where the writers are. Fellow misfits, at first you would've loved it. You got to choose the three famous writers you wanted to meet, and these guys went and found them for you. You got set up at the Gramercy Park Hotel, where you got to drink scotch late in the night with cool, smart, swank people. And you got to meet a bunch of editors and authors and agents at very, very fancy lunches and dinners. So kind of in those first nights in New York, I wanted to die there. I was just like kill me now, I'm good. This is beautiful.

On the last night, I gave a big reading at the National Poetry Club. And at the end of the reading, Katherine (ph) Kidde, Hoyt & Picard, literary agency, walked straight up to me and shook my hand and offered me representation, like, on the spot. I stood there, and I kind of went deaf. Has this ever happened to you? And I almost started crying because all the people in the room were dressed so beautifully, and all that came out of my mouth was I don't know. I have to think about it. And she said, OK then and walked away.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: This really - this, like, almost kind of excruciating difficulty with accepting gestures or saying yes or...

YUKNAVITCH: Yeah.

RAZ: ...Opportunities. What's that about?

YUKNAVITCH: I think for a lot of us who came up and through either sadness or abuse or violence, it's true that we couldn't follow the normal patterns that would show you how to get stronger. So we had to make up ways to save ourselves and make it through things. And what that breeds in you is a distrust of anything coming toward you. And you have to learn trust over again, and it's hard.

And I realize that that sounds pretty sad to some people, but it's true. It's an inability to just say, oh, thank you, that's amazing. I feel wonderful. (Laughter) For some of us, it's a series of steps we have to go through to even admit we deserve anything. There's a story to be told from that, and it's useful.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

YUKNAVITCH: If I could, I'd go back and I'd coach myself. I'd teach myself how to want things, how to stand up, how to ask for them. And I'd say you - yeah, you - you belong in the room, too. The radiance falls on all of us, and we are nothing without each other.

Instead, I flew back to Oregon. And as I watched the evergreens and rain come back into view, I just drank many tiny bottles of airplane feel-sorry-for-yourself. I thought about how if I was a writer, I was some kind of misfit writer. What I'm saying is I flew back to Oregon without a book deal, without an agent and with only a head full and heart full of memories of having sat so near the beautiful writer's. Memory was the only prize I allowed myself.

And yet at home in the dark, back in my underwear, I could still hear their voices. They said, don't listen to anyone who tries to get you to shut up or change your story. They said, give voice to the story only you know how to tell. They said, sometimes telling the story is the thing that saves your life. Although it didn't happen the day that dream letter came through my mailbox, I did write a memoir called "The Chronology Of Water." In it are the stories of how many times I've had to reinvent a self from the ruins of my choices, the stories of how my seeming failures were really just weird-assed portals to something beautiful. All I had to do was give voice to the story.

Now I am, as you can see, over 50, and I'm a writer and I'm a mother. And I became a teacher. There is a myth in most cultures about following your dreams. It's called the hero's journey. But I prefer a different myth that's slightly to the side of that or underneath it. It's called the misfit's myth. And it goes like this - even at the moment of your failure, right then you are beautiful. You don't know it yet, but you have the ability to reinvent yourself endlessly. That's your beauty. Your story deserves to be heard because you - you are rare and phenomenal misfit - you new species are the only one in the room who can tell the story the way only you would. And I'd be listening. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of "The Chronology Of Water" and the novel "The Small Backs Of Children." You can see her full talk at ted.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAILURE")

THE TING TINGS: (Singing) F-A-I-L-U-R-E, ooh. I'm so excited. I'm delighted. I'm a F-A-I-L-U-R-E, ooh.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show about failure this week. Our production staff here at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Baughman, Meghan Keane, Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our intern is Rachel Faulkner. Thanks to our partners at TED, Chris Anderson, Kelly Stoetzel and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FAILURE")

THE TING TINGS: (Singing) ...U-R-E, ooh.

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