Jessica’s greatest fear was failure. So, from a young age, she organized her life in a way that would impede such an event. As a child, she was the kid all the teachers and adults loved. In High School, she aced her way to valedictorian of her class. In her friendships, she was the leader and the link that bonded the group together. As a romantic partner, she required full control of her emotional reactions and desires.
She was the embodiment of her suburban environment: hard-working, disciplined, and stringent, and those traits were demonstrated in her physical stature: thin and polished to the point of restriction and control. But most importantly, she embodied success, not failure. And that was the crux of her identity.
She maintained this successful disposition as she studied philosophy and psychology at Brown University. Not only did she graduate Magna Cum Laude and build herself a hefty initial network with prominent faculty members, she also became popular with the students, started an undergraduate psychology journal, and kept an exercise and diet regimen that bordered on anorexia. After her undergraduate studies, she moved to New York City with her partner (who was also the embodiment of success) where she pursued graduate studies in psychology and he pursued graduate studies in biotechnology at Columbia University.
The young lovers were excited to relocate to a city that prized embodiments of success like themselves. However, their plans were quickly derailed. Ethan, her partner, used his dedication and persistence to become a successful partier to the detriment of his grades. He developed a cocaine habit and began climbing his way up the socialite ladder. As an accessory piece to his new lifestyle, he entered into a polyamorous relationship with an eccentric artist, which effectively ended his traditional relationship with her. She tried to make the breakup a successful failure, but she was never taught that lesson in school.
Jessica’s first lesson with failure: people who spurn failure early on often face great struggles as they age.
Her external appearance was the first trait affected. She became disheveled and chubby, no longer the physical embodiment of restriction and control. Being a societal faux pas, no one commented on her drastically altered image (or smell, due to her lacking hygiene). But as soon as she started missing assignments and classes and ignoring her friends and family during important occasions such as birthdays and holidays, those around her felt obliged to intervene.
It was her friend, Olivia, that first staged an intervention. Agitated at a persistent knocking, Jessica wrapped herself in a cotton blanket and opened the door with vengeful speed.
You’re, um, can I come in.
Jessica let her friend pass into her dirty and cluttered apartment. Olivia began to lower herself onto the couch Jess had occupied for the past month; but just as she was about to sit, she made a face and straightened her body back to its upright position.
Jess, we’re all worried about you.
Did you ever think that would be?
Well, no. But that’s beside the point.
What’s beside the point? Your wrong perception of me? My wrong perception of myself?
Okay, let’s start small. Is this because of the breakup?
That was the start.
Start of what?
Of me being a failure.
Jess, you aren’t a failure.
She gestured at the failure that was her apartment.
Well, ok. So maybe you’re in a hard spot, but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure.
Jessica’s second lesson with failure: failing at something doesn’t make you a failure.
A hard spot?
Yes, a hard spot because of the breakup.
Jessica sighed and let the blanket drop from her shoulders.
What if I helped you clean up a bit?
I don’t want you to clean my mess.
It’s okay. We’ll play some Marc Anthony and dance while we clean.
Olivia reached for her laptop.
What’s your password?
O and S.
Both ones are spelled out?
O (capital) n e S (capital) u c c e s s 1 (the number).
Okay, got it.
Marc Anthony began playing from her laptop. She sat and watched as her friend sang, danced, and cleaned.
You don’t want to dance at least?
No. I’m fine here.
Jessica stared at her muted TV, incapable of forming the moving visuals into a cohesive structure. Her mind was blank, as if she had reached a meditative state despite the fact that she had never meditated as there was a high potential for failure in calm, non-reward based activities for someone of her temperament.
Jessica, can you hear me?
Jessica turned and saw Olivia sitting on the couch’s armrest.
You really need help.
You said that already.
I know. But it’s worse than I thought.
Well, there isn’t much you can do, is there?
I don’t know. I’m trying.
Jessica could hear the laundry machine filling up with water. Olivia was trying.
Do you want me to just sit with you?
Sure. That would be nice.
Olivia sat at her side and unmuted the TV.
What is this?
I don’t know.
Do you want to watch anything in particular?
Olivia sighed remained at her side until the laundry machine buzzed.
I’m going to head. I just put the clothes in the dryer. They should be done soon.
Ok. Thank you.
If you need anything, please text or call. I’ll stop by again this weekend.
Ok. Thanks Olivia.
Jessica managed to shake her hand back in forth in a wave as the door closed upon her friend.
Olivia must have put out a warning signal to their group, because her phone began pinging and ringing non-stop after that encounter. And a few days later, a mutual friend came by to check up on her. They kept pounding on the door until Jessica relented.
How are you?
Jessica ran a hand down her blanket clad figure and shrugged.
Can I come in?
Anna had a powerful way of convincing others with her blunt, yet soft, way of speaking. Which is why Jessica found herself clean, dressed, and staring at a full glass of beer. As she glanced around the bar, she strengthened her theory that it was Olivia who sent Anna her way (for who better to subconsciously coax her out of the house).
You’re pensive today.
Ethan wasn’t anything special. You shouldn’t be so sad over him.
Why wasn’t he special?
He was boring and uptight.
He wasn’t towards the end.
True. He loosened up.
You never found me interesting either.
No. Not until now.
Yeah. Until now.
Now you find me interesting?
For fucks sake, don’t make me change my mind.
So why am I interesting now?
Because you have emotion in your eyes.
And that’s interesting?
Yeah. It shows that there is a person inside that façade.
Before I was just a façade?
Yeah. A fucking polished, blank eyed, always smiling façade.
But people liked me?
They didn’t like you. They liked what you could give them.
And the fact that you worked hard to make them like you.
People like that- like you were- you can never really get close to them.
I never saw myself like that.
That’s because you never let yourself see beyond your perfect exterior.
You didn’t even let yourself get close to you, let alone other people get close to you.
But now, you’re in the throes of it and learning about yourself in the process
Yeah. And it shows. But it’ll make you stronger and more interesting.
Let’s hope so.
I know so.
Well, thanks for your positivity.
Ana successfully convinced her to dance, as well as smoke weed for the first time with two random strangers as they wandered around Bushwick and climbed fences into parks and playgrounds. Success and failure were far from her mind that night.
But the next morning she woke up hungover and feeling more like a failure than before.
Jessica’s third lesson with failure: it’s an up and down process, a roller coaster ride. It takes a few tries (or many) to guide yourself out of failure.
Equating the false start at change to another testament of her failing personality, she spent the following week as she had the other ones: blankly staring at the TV and forgoing basic cleanliness. She also ignored all texts, calls, and knocks at her door until her phone stopped ringing and pinging and her door was left untouched.
Jessica’s fourth lesson with failure: when you reject people’s company for long enough, they stop offering their companionship and help.
She had read somewhere, back when failure seemed impossible, that when people are ready to grow out of a circumstance or hardship, lessons come with speed. But despite the lessons life was throwing at her, she ended up failing the semester, getting into debt, and spiraling downhill.
She was facing her fear of failure head on.
One day, however, she woke up and had the desire to confront her current situation. She quickly raised herself out of bed, opened the blinds, and began organizing her room. While she was cleaning, she happened to click on the first video in her YouTube recommendation list. She listened to J.K. Rowling describe how failure gave her the self-acceptance and determination needed to pursue the life she envisioned for herself.[i]
Jessica had yet to reach the rock bottom that had encouraged one of her idols to strip away the external and embrace the path of the unknown. But she did learn a powerful lesson.
Jessica’s fifth lesson with failure: failure isn’t negative or positive, it’s neutral.
In fact, the speech made her realize the power of cultivating a neutral perspective. Creativity, empathy, hard work, honesty: such traits can be used with ‘bad’ and ‘good’ intention. Jessica needed to use her own traits- traits that were rewarded in society- if not to improve the world, at least to improve her personal life.
For being an embodiment of success in societal standards wasn’t all that satisfying. It merely satisfied the institutions she was part of; which her short experience with failure made her realize she didn’t much care for anyways.