Actually, Failure is Always an Option

Ellie — You’re six months old now, and your latest accomplishment, according to your parents, is doing a great plank pose. Here you are in mid-action:


What fine form!

A couple of thousand miles away, I’m recovering from my most recent MOHs surgery — removing a reddish mole from the left side of my nose and spending several days looking as if my face had been fed into a meat-grinder. It wasn’t as bad as I feared and I didn’t end up with a third nostril or anything, but it was more extensive than I’d expected.

I asked Opa how I looked and he said I appeared to have been bitten in the face by a large dog. This made me think — not for the first time — that total marital honesty is overrated.

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Here I am, apres-MOHs, getting solace from a package of frozen peas.

But anyway, I’m healing now and my big shiner has faded, so it’s time to move on to our topic du jour: failure.

Yeah, I know, that’s kind of a bummer — especially for a six-month-old who just learned plank position. Who wants to talk about failure when you can talk about success and following your bliss and dreaming big?

(If I did that, though, then I’d have to decorate the blog with lots of smiley-face emoticons and pastel clouds and jaunty rainbows. But, you know, I’m just not one of those relentlessly positive, perky grandmothers. I like shadows with my light — they make the light so much more dazzling.)

So, failure. It happens to all of us. Then it happens again and again. It’s one of those inevitabilities of life — like dirty politics, bad breath, and stubbed toes. Failure is like building up speed and crashing into a wall, getting the breath knocked out of you and your butt kicked. It’s stunning and devastating. It can be so wounding and painful that it makes you think you never want to want something and go after it again. No, you’ll just view life from the sidelines, where you won’t risk anything and you won’t get hurt.

You’ll cry and gnash your teeth and scream that the world is unfair (which it is, but let’s leave that to another day). You’ll sulk and skulk and make bitter jokes. We all do that.

If you've never felt like this, you're just a six-month-old baby. Courtesy

If you’ve never felt like this, you’re just a six-month-old baby. Courtesy

But here’s the one lesson I want to give you about failure: How you react to it, what you do after you fail, will determine much of your life.

When you’ve stopped hemorrhaging ego and aren’t an emergency case any longer, you’ll ponder the situation. You’ll try to figure out what went wrong. More important, you’ll begin to figure out what you did wrong — and how you could have done everything better. You will learn more from failure than you’ll ever learn from success.

I’ve seen your mother do this in her life. I’ve seen her hurt and bewildered, then I’ve seen her analyze her own mistakes and what went wrong and re-double her efforts and push forward.

I’ve seen Opa rebound from a devastating setback in his early career — not getting tenure at his first university job. Sometimes, I think he wouldn’t have been nearly as successful in his profession if that first enormous failure hadn’t forced him to take a hard look at himself and the world he was in. (It also gave him a little humility, which is never a bad thing.)

Years ago, your mother had a grade-school assignment to come up with a word describing both her parents. I could hardly wait to hear what she’d come up with for me. Witty? Talented? Chic? (Glamour — I’m always hoping for a little glamour.)

“I said you were tenacious,” she told me. I’m sure my face fell. She then went on to mention examples of my tenacity: getting a magazine piece rejected, then sending it out again, where it was eventually accepted. “You didn’t give up,” she said. “You were tenacious.”

Being slow, I didn’t realize what a compliment that was till years later. Now, I’m proud of it.

My darling girl, someday you are going to feel like failure has broken your heart, has broken you. But then, after it happens, after you whine and wail, you will start to figure it out. You’ll fix what you can fix and go on, wiser and a little more banged-up. We’re all mottled, scarred, patched-up creatures if we live long enough.

But you will have learned that failure won’t kill you. And that’s the beginning of maturity and wisdom about life. I love you, Coco

P.S. Also, anybody who can ace a perfect plank position has probably already taken a few tumbles and tried again.

P.S.S. This is one of my favorite photos of myself struggling with failure, taken around 2008. l’d just heard that an interview of me with a big-time director about my cancer wasn’t going into the televised version — and, once again, I wasn’t bound for glory. I had Opa take my photo to illustrate a fake news story I wrote for my blog about a local woman who refused to get out of fetal position, except for meals.


There are two lessons here: You can write very funny pieces about failure, which people love to hear. It’s much harder — impossible, maybe — to write anything funny about success. Also, people don’t want to listen to it.

Second, I’d just had a very expensive hair color and cut. Even if you’re being photographed in fetal position, you’ll always feel better if you’re looking your best.


  1. Paul Babb · February 15, 2016

    Wonderful advice. Great writing. You nailed another one, Ruth.

  2. Linda Cox · February 15, 2016

    So wise, Ruth.

  3. Melanie · February 15, 2016

    I’ve always found fetal position really highlights, well, my highlights. Less distraction by things like facial features.

  4. Brette · February 15, 2016

    If your 6 mo old granddaughter is planking that well I need to up my game. Seriously, you’re so right about failure. Ellie is going to have everything she needs to know about life right here in this blog.

  5. Jane Boursaw · February 15, 2016

    Yes to everything you wrote, Ruth. Failure and fetal positions are always an option, and they make us better in the long run. And that’s a fantastic plank, Ellie. You go, girl!

  6. merr · February 15, 2016

    I love this.

  7. Roxanne · February 15, 2016

    Tenacious is indeed a compliment.

  8. What excellent writing and advice.

  9. Sheryl · February 15, 2016

    I loved reading your letters. I have 6 grandchildren who live in Chicago and Seattle and I live in Austin. We started trying to visit every child on his/ her birthdays, but now with six, the last one born last March, we will have to cut back some. Your letters gave me a wonderful idea.