What would you do if you knew you could not fail? I had that question hanging on a plaque over my desk for two years. Although I saw it daily, it was a year later that I finally read the word “knew.”
That one word significantly changed things for me as soon as I recognized the difference between the meaning I’d been reading and the actual words on the plaque. In my mind I had been skipping over the word knew. I read it as, “What would you do if you could not fail?” That’s very different from knowing in advance that not only will you not fail – but that you will succeed! That’s a powerful idea, isn’t it?
To know what success is you have to first define it. It’s different for everyone. Do you require fame, money, happiness, romantic love, a close family, or perhaps spiritual awakening to feel successful? What about self-determination?
At this stage in my life, success means being able to travel freely, write to my heart’s content, shoot my photographs, paint in the morning, enjoy good food and hang out with my friends anywhere and anytime I want to - all without worrying about how I will pay my bills or meet my responsibilities. I don’t really care if I sleep on my friend’s lumpy sofa in Rome – so long as while I am in Rome I have the freedom to explore, sample the exquisite cuisine, chat with friendly locals and spend a few days with my camera wandering the city and countryside. To me, that lifestyle translates into ultimate success. I know that I will have to work for it; but I would rather be earning a living doing the things that I truly love to do, and which inspire me, rather than to make lots of money doing things that I don’t enjoy or resent.
If I knew I could set out tomorrow for Italy, Greece and Turkey – and not worry that I would be stranded without money or run the risk of losing everything I’ve already created, I would be online now booking a flight to Rome. And therein lies the problem…
Fear that everything will fall apart.
Fear of making wrong decisions.
Fear of the unknown.
Fear of losing what I already have.
Fear of failure.
I used to think myself a pretty fearless person, and I was – before I had anything significant to lose. I wish I had followed my travel dreams before they got so far away from me. I bet some of you have had similar thoughts. Fear can be paralyzing.
When I started this blog, I vowed to myself to not discuss my divorce here because I didn’t want it to define me; but I have received so many lovely and thoughtful responses to the few lines I’ve written about my divorce experience, that I’ve decided to break my self-imposed silence on the subject. It is more important to be real with my readers. Apparently, there are a lot of other people out there who are in the midst of, or have gone through, a divorce situation themselves. So, here’s a bit about my story and why I remain hopeful and positive, despite the daily challenges. I hope that you will feel comfortable enough to share yours too.
When I moved out of the home that my husband and I shared last summer, I did so because I was thoroughly miserable and had been for several years. I had married a man nearly 12 years my senior who came from a very different cultural, religious and geo-political background than I. At first our differences were compelling. He taught me new things from his experiences and I taught him new things from mine. However, as the years went on, our differences became a chasm that could no longer be bridged. What’s more, as I got older I ceased to be his agreeable, amiable younger wife. I grew weary of agreeing to everything he wanted in order to keep peace at home. It took me a long time to realize just how much control over my own choices, career path and dreams I had relinquished to my husband. The more I gave up in the name of “maintaining harmony” between us, the more control he took. Finally, it became too much for me and I started to take some of myself back. That behavior created a lot of conflict between us. My husband had gotten accustomed to my deference to his decisions. He must have been wondering, “Who is this woman demanding that we spend a holiday with her family instead of with mine?” After all, we’d gone to Florida at least once, if not twice, a year to see his family over our fourteen years together. I couldn’t even get him to agree that I should attend a very important family funeral back in my hometown of Seattle. He generated a scenario that required one of us to be home the week of the funeral, and then he left town. I was stuck in Colorado and could only send my apologies and flowers to my family.
For several years, I kept pushing for more of an equal partnership in our marriage and he kept pushing back. It became a contentious and exhausting chess match – and he was a much better chess player than I. A mutual friend once asked my former husband why he so loved being a trial lawyer and his response was, “because I love to argue.” Well, that was for sure! I couldn’t even plan a simple dinner without having to justify every part of the meal; it’s cost, preparation and nutritional value. To get through even the simplest decisions, I had to make my opening statement, present evidence, bring in witnesses and make closing arguments. I know you may think I am exaggerating, but I assure you that was just the tip of the iceberg. Only trial lawyers should marry other trial lawyers – not people like me who hate to argue.
As my unhappiness and weariness increased, I spent more and more time alone or with friends and less and less time with my husband. One day I was browsing a bookstore with a girlfriend when I saw the plaque, “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” That was an excellent question that I felt I needed to seriously think about. I bought it and hung it above my desk. Every day for a year I asked myself that question – and every day I was gripped with the fear of making a dramatic change in my life. I feared the unknown. I feared failure.
Six months later, at the request of my Board of Directors, I dissolved the nonprofit agency I’d taken on as a Turnaround Specialist. Tough economic times had struck the U.S. and a sinking housing market had particularly hard hit Colorado. Because much of our state revenue was tied to a runaway housing boom, businesses and nonprofits were folding like newspaper tents caught in a hurricane. For a time, Colorado led the nation in home foreclosures and our economy was tanking (later to be led by Arizona, Nevada and Florida).
After having worked nearly nonstop since I was fifteen years old, I was suddenly out of work. With each unsuccessful job interview I grew more despondent. I was either overqualified for the position or an MBA was hired for the same job I’d previously held with my BA and having twelve years of nonprofit management experience. It didn’t seem to matter that I’d raised over $10 million grant dollars in my career or had successfully turned around 3 previously failing nonprofits. I lacked an MBA and that made me less competitive. So, I looked into going back to school for my MBA – that was until I discovered that the tuition alone was going to cost me nearly $50,000. I tried to get my husband to support my career change, but he refused and continued to interrogate me daily over the resumes I’d sent out and what job interviews I’d lined up. For over six years I had been earning the bulk of the household income and he simply wanted me to get back to work as soon as possible so we could return to our favorable standard of living. My unhappiness grew deeper.
One morning I was at my desk, preparing yet another batch of resumes and cover letters and I happened to look up at the plaque above my desk. I read it out loud and landed hard on the word “knew.” I thought about that for a while. “What if I was certain that I would succeed in regaining my happiness and self-determination if I were to leave my husband?” The next morning I started planning my break – at least that’s what it felt like: A prison break. I desperately needed to recognize that woman in the mirror again.
A year since deciding to make such a major life change, I am still officially “unemployed,” but working with a great group of interesting clients. I have only my car and a few pieces of furniture (although my estranged husband constantly threatens to take my car away, despite having promised it to me). I have lost my house, most of its contents, my hard-earned garden, my dog, and various other assets. I struggle every single month to make ends meet in a slowly improving economy. I go into court without a lawyer and face down an unprincipled trial lawyer who is doing everything in his power to make me pay for having left him. Recently, my tax return – which I had hoped would buy me a new camera – went to pay his unpaid back taxes instead. As an avid photographer, one of the most difficult things for me to be without is a decent camera – but I know that problem will eventually be solved. “Patience is a virtue,” they say, and I am a patient woman.
For years I was fearful of losing everything I’d worked so hard for – and I have surely sacrificed most of it in the interest of self-determination. I was fearful of the unknown; and yet I face the unknown every day. I was afraid of failing and making wrong decisions; and I’ve survived in spite of my many mistakes and failures. I’ve learned that nothing and no one is perfect; and so I let myself off the hook and do not expect perfection of myself, nor any one else. Life goes on despite the hardships we endure, which is why it is vitally important to welcome every new day knowing that even when you fail, you’ll survive the failure and come out the other side wiser than you were before. Eventually, mere survival gives way to living cheerfully and hopefully again. It is then that you will realize, as I have – even though my divorce battles rage on – that fear is just a four-letter word. “Fear” has no power, unless you give it power.
Everything in life has its cycle – the good stuff and the bad stuff comes and goes. What is true today may not be true tomorrow. I find a kind of liberation in knowing that unprejudiced truth. It has given me the courage to take advantage of new opportunities that present themselves, meet new people and explore more options. I know that if I miss one shot at the golden ring, the merry-go-round will spin by it again and I will have another chance. Something else will cycle through in place of missed opportunities. I just have to pay attention and keep trying to grab the ring as it comes my way again.