Thursday, August 20, 2015

"You're going to fail, and that's okay. Failure is part of the growth process."

Most of the people in my life know that a lot has changed for me in the years since I graduated from Elizabethtown College. I became a teacher, which was my life's ambition for as long as I remember, and I was able to connect with so many amazing young people and educators. I was able to learn from the diverse experiences of others, and I was able to learn from the experiences that I had. With every new year, new job, new experience, I became a new version of myself. Then I realized, in a painful moment, that teaching was not what I thought it was, and that in the end it was not where I would find happiness and fulfillment. In a blink, that stage of my life was done, and I was forced to create a new identity. Anyone who has done this knows that after a big decision like that, there comes a period where you are adrift, unfocused and confused about life and where you want to be in it. 

I found a new job, one that I'm happy to say I love very much. More than that though, I learned that I was more as a person than my job description. "Teacher" had been my identity, and without it I was forced to reevaluate. In the course of that I made a startling discovery. Teaching was what I had been doing, and it was something I enjoyed, but it isn't the whole of who I am. Little by little, I began to see that I could be many things. I could be a teacher and a student. And I don't mean a teacher in the traditional sense, where you stand in front of a classroom, or a student in the typical sense, where you learn from a teacher. I could be a teacher of life. I could move people's minds not by feeding them endless facts, but by demonstrating a positive way to live. I could learn on the ground, from other teachers of life, who can be both young and old. In fact, I have learned the most from people under the age of 18.

As part of this journey, I found that for the first time in my life, or at least since puberty, I began to actually like myself. I began to appreciate myself for both my strengths and my weaknesses. My strengths allowed me to provide a good example, and my weaknesses allowed me to remain a real, fallible person for the young people that watch me every day. Some may wonder why it is important to be fallible. Isn't it better to be invincible in the eyes of others? Isn't it better to at least seem like you have all the answers? No, it isn't. If you want to be a leader, be a teacher of life, it is essential that you remain transparently fallible, and I will tell you why.

Bi-monthly, the youth leaders at the Inner Harbor Project receive an evaluation from both me and the Youth Executive Leaders. As part of the evaluation process, I always have them write down a couple of goals that they have for themselves (work and personal) in the next two months. When it's time for evaluations again, we revisit those goals. Did they accomplish them? If not, why not? What can we do as a team to make those things happen? If they did hit their goals, then we create a couple new ones. Then I send them back off to the races, where they work on those goals for the next two months.

On the surface this seems simple. It's the same thing done in schools across the nation, after all. So let me tell you what makes it different. In my role as the Youth Coordinator, I am constantly visible. In the summer I spend 7 hours a day working with groups of young people. We eat lunch together sometimes, definitely snacks, and share a large part of our lives with each other. And you know what? They know my goals too. They know that I'm working on budgeting better, and that I made mistakes along the way financially. They knew immediately in January when I began nutritional cleansing, and have watched every step of the way as I struggled to give up soda and incorporate healthy foods and exercise into my life. They know that I want to go back to school, and that I value learning as a tool for lasting success. And you know what, they're as young as 14 years old and they support me every single step of the way, just as I support them. And you know what the result has been? SUCCESS. 

I sometimes sound like a broken record (even to myself), but I am constantly telling them that the most important thing in life is to keep improving. When it comes to learning and growing, you should never be "done." If you think you are, take a step back and reevaluate. It's possible that you may need to take another look at your identity to see if you are living the best possible life you can live. So you know what? It's not important for people to think you're invincible, or that you have all the answers. The truth is that no one does. Pretending you do is holding you back from benefiting from the amazing experiences and support systems available to you! It is ok to be still working, still learning, still racing for the highest prize. Along the way you're going to find successes that you didn't even know you were working toward.

I went to an amazing conference this weekend. It was a celebration of success, absolutely, but even more than that it was a celebration of failures. What? A celebration of failures? That's right! One of the speakers said something there that I thought was really profound. He said, "You're going to fail, and that's okay. Failure is part of the growth process." Not only is failure okay, but that's where the best ideas come from! And don't hide your failures, because someone else can learn from your journey.

The last few years have been stressful, trying and at times unbearable. But you know what? They were also beautiful, enlightening and above all, worth it. So when you get discouraged because you've failed again, remember that there are support systems out there for you, and that the people in them can benefit from all of your experiences, good and bad, just like you can.