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Jill Abramson, recently fired as executive editor of the New York Times, rose above vindictiveness a week later to tell graduates, “We human beings are a lot more resilient than we often realize.”
Graduation ceremonies are all about encouraging future success, but thinking back, I wish somebody had talked to us about failure — namely, finding the strength and heart to put one foot in front of the other after life’s personal and professional disasters.
Author J. K. Rowling a few years ago told Harvard grads about the “benefits of failure.”
“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realized, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
As a reporter, I’ve covered failures and losses, along with success stories about people who overcame challenges. I’ve written up bankruptcies large and small, and I’ve seen some of the same people come back with new businesses.
Before Dave Durgin became a New Mexico venture capitalist, he started several companies. At one time his small company was on the receiving end of harsh treatment by a larger partner. In his autobiography, “Entrepreneur to Investor the Hard Way,” he wrote: “Failure is an integral part of what you do. One’s character is severely tested. You can’t ever feel good about the situation, but it was handled with integrity and professionalism. We did the best we could under the circumstances at the time and lived to fight another day.”
He once told me that as an investor he didn’t mind seeing failures or even a bankruptcy in somebody’s past if it meant they had learned from their mistakes or had made understandable mistakes.
A friend and I were chuckling the other day about my own career disasters. Most memorable, I suppose, was getting fired from a TV station. During a recession. As a single mom. My son got very sick, so I couldn’t look for a job, not that there were any to find. Turning to my family, 500 miles away, wasn’t an option.
After wasting some time in anger and poor-me, I had a realization not unlike Rowling’s: I hated television news. I hated the work and the big egos. I thought the product was superficial. And the people were always at each other’s throats — or backs.
An idea began to form. I wondered if I could make it as a freelancer. The answer was yes, modestly. We ate a lot of peanut butter. It didn’t kill us. And once I learned I could survive working for myself, it gave me a kind of security even after returning to the job market.
Like Rowling, I also learned that not succeeding in TV was a blessing. Otherwise, I might have entered the career limbo of people who are unhappy at work but not quite miserable enough to leave.
Jill Abramson loved her work. It hurt to lose that job, but she remembered her father’s words long ago: “Show them what you’re made of.” That resilience will see her through until the next chapter opens in her life. Her parting words to the graduates were, “Get on with your knitting.”