This helped me succeed as an adult.
A perk of being born to parents who chronically drank and did drugs from their teenage years through 40 is that I was an awkward, uncoordinated runt of a child. Not a premie, but tiny. My parents were both 5’1”, so it’s a miracle that I managed to hit 5’4”.
My parents were also beaten by life, by the time I was born. The American dream didn’t happen. Their youngest children were finally out on their own, so they were free to party it up all they pleased. Then, they met each other. Two people who had multiple kids from previous relationships opted to forgo birth control, one Valentine’s day, resulting in my conception. My birth led to their marriage – the biggest reason I’m against marrying over pregnancy.
How did this affect my development into a functioning person?
They Were Too Worn Down
My parents were too tired to ever play with me. My dad was only not tired on nights he went to the bar. Fortunately, I got to tag along. Unfortunately, it did nothing for my hand-eye coordination or muscle control. I couldn’t catch or throw to save my life, even by the standards of a child doing these things. That had a huge impact on my childhood.
Being a boy from the rural Midwest, it was crucial to be into baseball, basketball, and football. I couldn’t get into those things because of how much I sucked at them. Sucking at most every sport wouldn’t have been so bad if not for school. The fact that I was forced to suck at something, in a public manner, on the regular, shouldn’t surprise people that I have no interest in those things as an adult.
I wound up failing at baseball, softball, basketball, football, kickball, badminton, volleyball, tennis…virtually every physical thing people try to get children into. It felt like I was failing on a daily basis, because of this.
I felt like shit about myself. It’s hard to feel worthwhile when what you bring to the table is not as good as everyone else. It’s hard for a child to feel valued when they aren’t good at the things that adults enjoy watching kids do. So much of a child’s feeling of worth is based on the child being able to perform what the adults find important.
What I Was Good At
I was a gifted child. I had opportunities to join “advanced” programs and even skip a grade. Opportunities that weren’t pursued. In the rural Midwest, especially then, school was just flash. Education was frivolous. The only purpose behind sending your kids to school was to get them into sports.
My father was quite proud of my brainpower. At the bar, my dad loved showing off how good I was at the video poker machine. I was great at bar puzzles often used to scam drunks out of drinks. While it scored my dad free drinks, it’s not something as braggable to others as a child who hit a home run. Plus, not many people who are famous for having a drinking problem want to tell their coworkers “I use my kid to score free booze.”
I excelled at Nintendo games. In the early days of gaming, it was viewed as total nonsense. I can’t tell you how many times I heard that I was wasting my time on “those” games. The funniest part about that is how many life lessons I learned from video games that the adults who mocked me for playing them never taught me: Budgeting, commerce, stocks, map reading, grinding, patience, leveling up, and preparedness – all that came from video games.
So, How Did I Get Self-Esteem?
My father died when I was 11. The state started getting involved as my mother and I had no other family. My caseworker found a sponsor for me to sign up for Taekwondo based on my love of Ninja Turtles. For the first time in my life, I found myself in a group activity that I wasn’t bad at doing. Though I didn’t place in the first tournament I attended, the shame of a participation trophy motivated me to go all-in.
Over the next two years, I would go on to break boards with every part of my body including my face (yes, on purpose), become a trainee instructor, and receive my black belt.
That was step one in building self-esteem – finding something I was good at and was recognized for being good at doing. That’s how we build it in our kids. Find their latent talents and focus on those.
Language and Art Teachers
Ask anyone who was the slightest bit of a loner who their favorite middle or high school teachers are, you will learn who the best creative teachers at that school were during that time. This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Reality check: Only on Glee will you see the star quarterback singing with jazz hands.
Yes, I was odd. I was the only rural boy who didn’t like sports, hunting, or fishing. The most common question I would hear: What’s wrong with you? None of the adults in my life stepped in to mention that there was NOTHING wrong with me, I just held different interests.
The teachers who didn’t make me feel like my oddities were imperfections were my English, French, and Art teachers. One of my most prominent differences was my interest in spirituality and alternative religions (in the rural Midwest in the 90s, everything was of the Bible or of the Devil). My best English teacher, despite her own religious convictions, would allow me to do papers and speeches on spiritual topics though the school didn’t allow for such. She did this because she was curious as to what I had to say and wanted to encourage me to put my all into the work.
They may have not known it, but my Language Arts teachers were my first real writing fans. Not only did they help me feel better about my differences of worldviews, but I literally would not be a writer if not for their encouragement.
Surprisingly, a Job Helped a LOT
My first job was at a major fast food franchise. I was 16 and excited about the chance to make money. I got the grand kitchen tour and was introduced to the clam – the grill that made the burgers. This was my first assignment. It wasn’t difficult, which is what made it seem odd how managers kept remarking how well I was doing.
The next day, they showed me how to operate the cash register. Again, this came easy to me. Within a couple of hours, I was asked to cover the drive-thru. In only two days, I was being celebrated for how versatile of an employee I was.
By the end of that first year, I made a job jump to a big box retailer after fellow fry guys got settled enough to be a reference for me. I brought my extra-mile work ethic from the golden arches to the land of low prices. By the end of high school, I was one of the few cashiers pulled to run registers in other departments who could also cut keys, mix paint, and develop pictures. I was on my way to Customer Service Manager until a change in local alcohol law railroaded that path (now requiring CSMs to be 21 years old).
At work, I was able to form an identity completely independent of the one I had at school and at home. I wasn’t thought of as the odd one because sports and the like weren’t a part of the job, so my lack of interest didn’t matter. I wasn’t thought of as a slacker because I actually did my job.
In fact, my reputation at work was the opposite of outside of work. The things I said weren’t troubling, they were funny. My perspective wasn’t skewed from my past, it was appreciated for being able to notice what most can’t. I wasn’t lazy simply because I didn’t care to do homework, I was one of the hardest workers and everyone knew it.
Having a job did far more to motivate me into becoming a productive member of society than anything that my parents (birth or adoptive) did.
* * *
I’ve learned some fun things about failure and success that have helped me accept failures and successes:
- It isn’t a failure if you learn and keep going. It was only a lesson. It’s only failing if you quit.
- It isn’t a failure if it isn’t your goal. I don’t begrudge myself for the bounty of times I struck out in baseball because I didn’t want to be in the game in the first place. Those were the strikes and outs of every adult who made me play.
- Success is YOUR perception of YOUR situation. When I started writing full-time, I was waiting tables part-time. I preferred waiting tables two nights a week to holding an office job for five days. To me, success was knowing that I was free. I was free because a part-time job is easy to replace, so it held no power over my life.
- Success is YOUR business. I have friends who have salaries that pay more than what I make. But, I own my house, car, and truck. My net worth is higher than these “successful” friends of mine because of this.
About “Never Really Failing”…
I mean it. For example, I moved to Nashville to be a songwriter. I wound up crossing paths with local fiction writers and becoming friends with that circle. This led to me meeting non-fiction writers, which led to me attending storytelling events, which led to me performing at comedy clubs as well as producing events.
Now, I write for money. Not just pennies and clicks from websites like Medium, but articles for clients to post on their websites. Not quite writing songs, but this is something I can do from anywhere. By not limiting myself to being a songwriter, I was able to open my world to writing so many more things, becoming more successful as a writer than many who move to Nashville and only ever write customers’ lunch orders.
Did you fail a lot? Were they really your failures, or failures you were forced to endure? Where do you excel? How are you changing to focus more on excelling than on failing?
You can do it. Be the best you and so much else falls into place.
Related Journaling Prompts: When did I think that I failed but really was rerouted to success? Why is it a good thing that certain goals weren’t accomplished?