Failure, Reframed

Last year, I decided to make a massive career change: I would stop writing, and I would become a nurse.

The decision was simpler than the process. To pass the entrance exam for nursing school, this Art and Theater major had to pull out all the stops in the math and science departments. I knew it would take some doing. And I guessed (rightly) that I couldn’t do it alone.

So, I shoved my usual introvert ways to the side, and, readers, I hustled. I declared my intention loud and clear to the universe—i.e., Facebook. I networked with as many nurse friends as I could track down. I asked a teacher friend to tutor me for long hours in math (never my strong suit—the asking for help or the math). I learned Pressure Laws and osmosis and body systems and what the Golgi Apparatus was for by watching science videos on YouTube with my daughters. I pleaded with my family for more help around the house so I could devote myself to studying like a madwoman for the entrance exam.

I passed the exam with flying colors. I even rocked the interview (and promptly went home and passed out from the exertion).

I got in.

Once more, I channeled my inner extrovert and posted the good news. My parents and my brother (a doctor) were over the moon. Facebook cheered for me: For a single mom, nursing is much more practical than writing! Finally, steady income! Your girls must be so proud!

When my school supplies—books, stethoscope, blood pressure cuff, and requisite white clogs—arrived in the mail, I could practically taste the sterile tang of my Florence Nightingale future. This was it. I had finally—after half a lifetime of seeking and not-finding—discovered my calling. I would rock school like I’d rocked the entire admissions process, I decided. In fact, I would rock the nursing profession. I would become a nurse practitioner someday. I would finally become a respectable grownup, with a respectable profession. I had this in the bag.

Insert vinyl record screech.

Five days later, as I wept uncontrollably at the dining room table, surrounded by a castle wall’s worth of nursing texts and first week’s homework, my nursing dream crashed and burned. Spectacularly.

To be clear: I had been crying since the first day of class ended. The program—a one-year intensive LPN course—ran from 3:45 p.m. to 10:15 p.m. each day, five courses at a time. The class itself was big and boisterous, vastly different from my home environment, where I was used to writing alone with a dog at my feet. I stammered through class presentations, my face flushed and my hands shaking. I was drained and on edge and couldn’t think straight. The multi-tasking was frying my brain. Ancient OCD symptoms burst forth like a sprinkling of spring blooms: I couldn’t brush my notebook paper with the side of my hand without wanting to vomit. No, I thought. Not now. It had been a long while. I was scared, but I was also furious at the limits of my own brain.

I’ve written openly in the past about my lifelong debilitating anxiety and suicidal depression. I take an absurd number of medications daily to keep my snarling demons mollified by day and to put them to sleep at bedtime. I see my psychiatrist regularly. I am a good psych patient because I have to be. It’s what keeps me alive, and my daughters need me alive.

With the advent of nursing school, I was not sleeping. When I did manage to fall asleep, with the assistance of sedatives that would bring down a rhino, terror nightmares slammed me awake, heart jackhammering in my ribcage. My brain was saying: BUT WE HAVE TO KEEP GOING. EVERYBODY KNOWS. WE’VE COME THIS FAR. But my body was telling my brain otherwise: NICE TRY. NO WAY.

Part of being a good mental health patient is active self-awareness; it’s knowing the difference between a fleeting emotion (“Jeez, the deli section is really stressing me out today”) and the potent gut instinct telling you that you’ve taken a terribly wrong turn and that if you don’t listen up, there will be hell to pay.

I knew the answer, but I wished I didn’t: In this case, it was the latter. There would be hell to pay. My daughters knew it too. My younger one, now 12, climbed into my lap as I was sobbing onto my piles of homework. She said, “Mom, I think there’s got to be a better way. This just isn’t your right way.”

She’d nailed it. This was the wrong program for me. It didn’t matter that I was off to a good-enough start, making friends and scoring high marks on quizzes. It didn’t matter that the Facebook friends and family believed I could just push through and succeed. What mattered was the fact that I was most surely going to torpedo my mental health if I kept going like this. A peculiar paradox: learning to heal others would mean I’d be harming myself.

I formally withdrew from the program. And there it was: total and complete failure, impossible to hide.

My nursing teachers were understanding and supportive of my need to bow out. I think you’d be a very honorable addition to our profession, one wrote to me afterward. I tried not to care about what others would think. I coiled into my introverted self and lay low, licking my wounds. But the messages flooded in: How are classes going? Bet you’re killing it!

I finally posted on Facebook a brief message to explain to well-wishers that I wouldn’t be continuing with this particular nursing program. All of the kind, reassuring comments I received vanished in the face of the single disapproving remark: Didn’t you just start? Did you at least make it to the end of a semester?

I think it’s hard for most people to reframe a crushing disappointment as a detour or a plot twist. In this case, my failure felt especially devastating because I had invited the world in to witness my journey. I had extroverted my way into a success that proved to be something else, and now there was nowhere to hide. Borrowing moxie from my extroverted friends and families had helped me achieve a goal, that was certain. What would help me get past this setback?

As usual, my super-extrovert mother encouraged immediate action. “Become a certified nursing assistant! Here’s a link to a Red Cross program that starts on Sunday!” Exuberant friends texted ideas: “Approach a hospice center and tell them you’ll work for free for a customized on-the-job training program!” “Shift to Health Informatics!” “Move to Hawaii!”

Instinctively, I recoiled from all the advice. “I need to regroup,” I told everyone. The thought of plunging down another path before I’d sorted out what had just happened was absolutely horrifying. I knew in my gut the only voice I needed to hear was mine—and the din was way too loud for me to find it.

Why were the extroverts in my life pressing for more action rather than introspection? Well, Eyneck’s studies on cortisol—the so-called “arousal” hormone—found that extroverts have lower levels of cortisol on a regular basis, which sends them careening into the world for new experiences and new interactions. People self-identifying as introverts measured at higher, more constant levels of cortisol. In other words, introverts don’t need to find stimulation: it finds them, and additional interaction can render them overstimulated and stressed.

Don’t dwell so much on it was the constant refrain from my extrovert relatives and pals. But grieving and brooding is exactly what led me to a shift in thinking. I gave myself permission to process the failure in my own way and time. Characteristics prominent in introverted people (often described in the context of Carl Jung’s research and Myers-Briggs types) include deriving energy from time alone and making choices deliberately without the need for others’ input. My extroverts didn’t like the look of it, but my truest self sure did.

I knew it was back to the drawing board for me, which meant new planning and hard-core problem solving: precisely the stuff that we introverts excel at. One well-documented study found that introverts possess greater blood flow in the frontal lobes of the brain as well as the frontal and anterior thalamus—all parts of the brain equipped for heavy-duty internal processing. In a sudden and welcome lightbulb moment, I wondered if I was possibly better equipped than my extroverted loved ones to handle failure, to find the lesson in it, and to adapt accordingly?

I decided to go for broke: I would surrender completely to my introvert ways and see where they took me. Several deactivations and unsubscribes from social media accounts and an untold number of marketing emails later, I felt unburdened. I was still smarting, for sure, but my introvert soul felt more in control and more at peace, better equipped to ponder my next move. Disclaimer: I did keep one online account, Pinterest. Minimal human interaction was still required, and where better to curate my collection of reassuring quotes about recovering from failure? Words from those who’d seen career shipwrecks and lived to right their vessels were suddenly as soothing to me as sea air:

Failure is only the opportunity to more intelligently begin again. —Henry Ford

I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work. —Thomas A. Edison

Big words like these provided much needed perspective. Maybe I was only beginning again, intelligently. I’d cordoned off a path that wouldn’t work for me—but maybe now I was one step closer to finding one that would. Now, if only I could find the map.

After a few melancholy weeks of radio silence with the world and connection with myself, I woke up one morning with a very specific (and writerly) question in my head: What was my underlying theme, after all?

I sat with my coffee and pondered my original motivation for all the work that I’d put in to get into nursing school. I’d lost sight of it in all the talk and motion. I’d attempted a nursing program for a reason bigger than the paycheck, the security, and the adorably utilitarian clogs: I’d just wanted to help people. I may have bombed at this particular nursing school program, but could I find other ways to pitch in in my community while I figured out what came next? Definitely. Would that lead to something? Maybe.

I started that day by signing up at Volunteer Match (, a site that matches volunteers to local community projects, based on each volunteer’s specific skill set and preferences. My girls and I have been volunteering for several years with a local Meals on Wheels organization, but I knew I could surely do more now with the extra time. Through Volunteer Match, I was linked to an organization in our rural area that provides support to new mothers in need of weekly help and companionship. This was an admittedly extroverted task, but I realized that working directly with a family in need felt the closest to what I’d hoped to do with nursing. I took the plunge and signed up. I felt a quiet yes in my gut. I also applied—and was accepted—to start training as a volunteer crisis counselor at Crisis Text Line. When I finish my training, I’ll be working a four-hour shift each week, helping people in crisis stabilize and find the resources they need. So although I failed at one thing, colossally, I’ll still be honoring my primary motivation—helping others—and let that be my new North Star.

In addition to volunteering, I went back to the career drawing board. I made lists of other possible jobs and paths. I emailed for information on everything from different nursing programs (one or two classes at a time) to certificate programs in genealogy. I stopped checking in nervously with the world and simply checked in with me. It would be a year of introspection combined with action, no matter how small. It would be the year of little promises kept and medium-sized commitments honored.

I couldn’t stop writing—I needed food and heating oil, after all. Was there a different way of looking at my writing, then? Could I get better at it this year? I didn’t know, but I could try: I signed up for a summer writing conference (a very small one, only 12 writers) to work on my craft with the help of other like-minded souls. Could I find new opportunities in the same old field? I peeked out of my turtle shell to ask my editor if she thought there might be room for an advice column here at Quiet Revolution, one headed up by my inner grumpy introvert. To my great surprise and pleasure, my editor gave me the thumbs-up—which means my most authentic self gets to be a bossyboots know-it-all on a regular basis. (My authentic self is chuffed.)

I made another deal with myself. I’d do one creative thing a day: write a poem, take a photograph, sketch a cartoon, hike with the dogs, send someone a handmade card, teach myself to make lemon curd (maybe I’d find out what lemon curd was first—thank you, my beloved Pinterest). These were tiny actions in the grand scheme of life, but I liked being accountable to myself for staying creative and remaining engaged with my own life in ways that have always provided me quiet, intense joy.

Months after what I saw as my biggest failure, the peace and quiet I’ve allowed myself in real life and online in this painful, awkward, transitional period means my inner voice continues to pipe up regularly in a way it hasn’t in a very long time. I’ve given my gut permission to do the talking, and my gut knows I am finally listening. Yes. Keep going. Add only what makes sense. Let go of what you don’t need.

Do I know what the future holds for me, career-wise? Nope. But do I still feel like a failure, afraid to show my face? No. And that comes as a pleasant surprise. I’m doing things my way, and I’m betting the process has more surprises in store. The journey has become, maybe for the first time ever, more interesting than the result. I honestly feel better, more in the moment, more grounded, and simply more myself. It’s not a nursing degree or a steady paycheck, but you know what? I’ll take it.