Before she became the Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle had a website called The Tig. On it, she shared her passions for food, travel, fashion, and beauty. As she prepared for her royal wedding, she deleted the site, as well as her Instagram and Twitter presence. But I still find myself going back to old quotes that she shared, such as this one: “No regrets. … Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.”
Gambate is Japanese for the art of ‘going for it.’
I love that quote so much because it sums up the importance of daring. One of my favorite expressions in Japanese is gambate, and it’s the art of “going for it” that brings the truly great things to our lives—the cool job or the fabulous romance or the big adventurous trip.
As the new year approaches, the most important thing I do for myself is carve out a few minutes to think about what I really want in the 365 days ahead. What would be a personal wow for me?
When I think about it on the fly, the answers come to me in a rush of unfocused answers: I want to go to Puerto Rico! No, I want to go to London! I want to take piano lessons! I want to change careers, move to the country, start a new health care regimen! When I don’t stop to focus, to really think and listen to myself—what would make me happy? Is it really something so big or is it something smaller? Then I can’t go for “it,” because deep down, I have no idea what “it” really is. It will take time.
Learning From Failure and Recognizing that Risks Are Really Good
But I do know that after the focusing in on the dream comes summoning the courage. When I was younger, I thought that confidence was like being a certain height or having a certain color hair—either you were born with it or not. I envied those cool girls who seemed to have all the answers and none of the doubts.
I want to make mistakes because I want to figure out how to live life to the fullest.
Eventually, I realized that was a façade: No one feels sure all of the time. I came to see that confidence was something you could practice or pretend—fake it until you make it, as the expression goes. That helped a little bit. I’d have a moment where I needed to feel stronger, and I’d try to channel the energy of amazing women I admired, like Oprah or Michelle Obama or Beyoncé.
But as I get older, I realize that what really matters is the feeling of what the French called bien dans sa peau, feeling good in your own skin. When I start there, I want to make mistakes because I want to figure out all the ways I can live my life to the fullest.
How to Keep Going in the Face of Failure
Yes, sometimes, when you go for it, you fail. I’ve come to believe that success is a matter of volume more than anything. I’ve written four New York Times best sellers. The amount of rejections I’ve received number in the tens of thousands. That’s not an exaggeration; that’s a fact. And the rejections, the no-thank-yous, and the hell-nos and the choruses of “you’re not good enough” are not all in my distant past. They are constant and recent because I’m always trying for the next new thing.
It is one of my BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals) to attend the women’s writing retreat, Cottages at Hedgebrook. I’ve applied half a dozen times and never gotten in. I’ve had people say to me, “you should teach at Hedgebrook,” and I tell them that I would love to teach there but I can’t even get in. The last rejection I received was on December 30th. I was at Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, celebrating the new year with my favorite dance troupe. My phone buzzed during intermission. I thought it was a babysitter; instead, it was a “Thank you for applying to Hedgebrook. We’re sorry to inform you that your application was unsuccessful.”
I’ve been fired—twice. Each time it stung so hard, I felt like I’d been not just slapped but beat down like a street fight in a back alley. And by fired, I mean not laid off because of a bad economy, but asked to go because it was decided I was a bad fit. Cut loose—in the Odd Couple way, On November 13, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. That request came from his wife. Except each time I was fired, I was asked to leave by a boss I’d been thrilled to work for, someone I admired deeply and tried, almost desperately to please.
Each time I was fired it stung so hard, I felt like I’d been not just slapped but beat down like a street fight in a back alley.
I tried for years to get a tenure university teaching job. Once the department chair of a university where I’d applied to teach at sent me the email she’d forwarded her colleagues. I think it was by mistake. As time goes on, I’m not entirely sure it wasn’t sent to me on purpose—to fully dissuade me from ever applying for a job at that university again. The email began with “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me …” Somewhere in the middle there was a smattering of “Who does she think she is?” And then at the end, it said, “Sure, she has more than a dozen books to her credit, but she also lacks focus and substantive intellectual achievement.” That rejection hurt. But I keep teaching because I love it, because I feel like it is one of the sports I was born to play.
This year, I taught at Stanford University and Smith College: not tenured jobs, but courses that stretched my brain and filled me up. I literally skipped out of the classroom each day. The person who hired me at Stanford said that the ratings on my course were among the highest he’d ever seen, but I still got five rejection letters from universities this year. I’ve found that there is really only one choice for me to make at the end of the day: Wallow, or take it in as useful, if painful, information—not punishment—and keep going.
The Secret Silver Linings of Life
There’s a tremendous difference between head knowledge and heart knowledge. Head knowledge pertains to facts. We know, for example, that it takes six hours to fly from Los Angeles to New York. Or we know, intellectually, that you can’t use cream in a certain recipe because it will ruin the dish.
These kinds of failures are like a badge of courage.
Heart knowledge is a different matter entirely. We only learn these things by trying them out in our real lives. Whether we succeed or whether we fall short, we walk away from the experience knowing more than we could have ever known before. And because we learned from trying, the gift we get to take with us is that we carry the wisdom of the experience in our heart. These kinds of failures are like a badge of courage that no one can ever take that away from us.
As we look towards a new year, I worry less about the mistakes I might make and more about how I can reach for the things that fill me with joy. Oprah Winfrey, of course, said it best: “Think like a queen. A queen is not afraid to fail. Failure is another stepping-stone to greatness.”
Veronica Chambers is a prolific author and journalist, best known for her critically acclaimed memoir Mama’s Girl, the young adult novel The Go-Between, and Yes Chef, which was co-authored with chef Marcus Samuelsson. She is the editor of The Meaning of Michelle: 16 Writers on the Iconic First Lady and How Her Journey Inspires Our Own.