I was having the hardest time sleeping that night. Maybe it was because I fell asleep on the couch and didn’t get into the actual bed until 3 am. Once I got into bed, my brain wouldn’t turn off. Why do I always try to solve the world’s problems, plan my budget, design a retreat program, and remember the names of friends from elementary school at 3:30 in the morning?! Plus, the longer I do all that without falling asleep, the less restful sleep is once it arrives.
Once I actually got to sleep, I dreamed I was working again where I interned in the summer of 2004. Great, I’m dreaming and it consists of conducting background checks and interviews! But in the dream, I didn’t want to be there, I wanted to be back at my real job. I was dressed in blue jeans and had to tuck in my casual shirt, because I was underdressed for work in my dream. How lame is that?! Where is the usual nightmare consisting of flesh-eating monkey men?!
In the morning, I decided to process this dream. Maybe it happened because Texas had been in the news and that’s where I had completed my internship. Maybe because of the unhealthy attempt to solve all of my problems during a bout of insomnia, I dreamt of a time of my life where I failed. I was in graduate school in Minnesota with every intention of going into a corporate HR world upon graduation and never looking back, retiring with a big fat bank account and lots of stuff. To help get there, I secured an internship in Houston for the summer with the largest brewing company in the world.
I did fine for the first half of the summer, but the work was really repetitive and boring. The thing about really successful production-based companies is that they already know how to do things very well. My job was not to use my skills to come up with new solutions. My job was to do the processes that they had established, over and over again. Truthfully, a bright high school sophomore could do most of this stuff, but they wanted someone with a master’s degree because after ten years or so, that person could become an HR director as opposed to a glorified personnel generalist. So why do people submit to this? Have you ever heard of 401(k) plans and matching contributions exceeding 100%? Maybe not, but those things mean you can buy a lot of stuff when you’re not at work. As for me, I squirreled away enough money to pay for tuition the next two semesters for an out of state business graduate school and still had money left over. And that was just as an intern!
But along the way, it just became really bad. The assistant director of HR actually told me one day that I needed to express affiliation with a certain political party to go far in the company. And even though it never affected my judgment or performance, I was honest in that I didn’t have much of a problem with labor unions. About three weeks away from completion, the woman who was my mentor told me my performance was slipping. Which bothered me because I had great scores on my mid-summer evaluation but hadn’t received any coaching since. Even if I didn’t enjoy the job, I didn’t want to fail at it. But I missed being at the camp where I had spent the previous five summers. I missed the coming football season in Tuscaloosa. I was beginning to miss the creativity and control over my work that I knew would come if I took a job like this out of graduate school.
So at my end of the summer evaluation, I was rated below expectations in 2 of 10 performance metrics. That means I didn’t receive an offer for full employment once I graduated. I thanked the HR staff for the experience. I really did learn a lot about HR systems and management and I also banked a lot of money. Driving back up to Minnesota, I knew it would be weird seeing my classmates again and that I hadn’t received an offer when many others had from their internships. My self confidence was really low. I had failed at something pretty big, an internship that could have led to a full-time job in a Fortune 500 company. Even though it would have been awful to do for the next however many years, it wasn’t on my terms to not do it. That just kind of sat in my stomach for weeks.
I was dating Shannon at the time and she told me that I had plenty of value to give to the right organization and that this wasn’t the right one. She also told me that God had a plan for better things and that I didn’t need to waste my time dwelling on this setback because it wasn’t a setback. If this company couldn’t figure out my value, then it was their loss, not mine. She was right. (How many times do I say that a day now that we’re married?) I had successfully eliminated one way of proceeding in my career and luckily I hadn’t wasted years working in a job where I would be miserable yet paid so well I wouldn’t be able to afford to leave. What a relief! And that was just one more reason why I knew I would marry that girl one day.
That coming spring, I received a phone call asking if I would help guide the Sumatanga camping program through an interim summer. In the spring of 2005, I received an offer to do that full-time. What if things had gone differently at that internship? I could be in Newark, New Jersey today writing up a fork-lift operator for not wearing a seatbelt while my boss cracks jokes about things that make my skin crawl. Thank God for the failure of that internship!
Newsflash: not everyone is going to think we are as great as our grandmothers have been telling us we are all these years. Chances are, if we’re trying, we’re failing a good bit along the way. We are going to find things that we just can’t do good enough to please certain people or we’re going to find other people that just do things better than us. Our kindergarten teachers lied to us. Not everyone deserves a gold star all the time for everything we attempt. So what?! We can’t let that sink us. We must keep our spirits open to God’s providence to guide us. We may not like where it will take us. But the seeds of future successes are often planted in the soil of past failures.
A key concept in Hasidic thought expresses the idea of balance: “Keep two pieces of paper in your pockets at all times. On one write, ‘I am a speck of dust.’ On the other, ‘The world was created for me.'” The divine and the ordinary merge in Judaism, where the holiest day of the year is not Yom Kippur, the majestic and awesome Day of Atonement, but every Saturday. This potentially average day of the week is such a distinctive time that, according to tradition, a band of ministering angels follows each person home from synagogue to help usher in the special spirit of the day….Within Judaism you can find an antidote to the “specialitis” our culture fosters. Judaism asks that we raise our children not in hope that they are the Messiah but to be themselves. Consider the wisdom of Rabbi Zusya, an early Hasidic leader and folk hero. Zusya was known as a modest and benevolent man who, despite his meager knowledge of Torah, attained merit because of his innocence and personal righteousness. Before he died he said, “When I reach the world to come, God will not ask me why I wasn’t more like Moses. He will ask me why I wasn’t more like Zusya.”
– Dr. Wendy Mogel, from Chapter Two of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee
Mistakes are a part of being human. Appreciate your mistakes for what they are: precious life lessons that can only be learned the hard way. Unless it’s a fatal mistake, which, at least, others can learn from.
– Al Franken