09 May 2013


All right, I can't any longer not talk about this. I had it once again shoved in my face this morning, in double-dosage. You see, what happened was that a friend posted on Facebook a really cool article, written by a lady who was homeschooled, entered college at age 13 (yes, true story), proceeded to take every ceramics class they had available four times over, aced them all, and went on to a job with the Laguna clay company (the potters among you will know what that means).

Great. Love the story. So wonderful for this young lady; I'm so pleased she had that opportunity and that it worked out so well for her. It's a beautiful success story. And it's by no means the only one of the kind I've ever heard.

But you see, that's precisely the problem. I've heard these stories over and over. There are people who write whole books about them, glowing success stories of what happens when you homeschool your children. And I believed those stories. I believed them deeply, fervently, whole-heartedly. I invested my life in that belief.

And then I experienced failure. Because what I really believed when I clung to those stories was not that homeschooling worked out great for the Colfaxes and the David Alberts, but that it would work out great for me. Because that's the message that's behind all those stories, unspoken in some cases, loudly articulated in others: if only you do things this way, this is the success you will experience.

So I tried doing things that way. I tried my darndest. And tried, and tried, and tried. And failed. From almost the first year of our homeschooling, things did not work the way I was told they would. And I felt, not to put too fine a point on it, like shit. Because if you do things right, then you will be successful - isn't that so? So if you're not successful, you've obviously doing something wrong. You've failed. You have failed.

And this issue does not just pertain to homeschooling (even though, I think, homeschoolers can take the attitude to unusual heights). No, it crops up in every walk of life. Anne Lamott, this morning on Facebook (and that was today's second instance of having my face rubbed in this topic), posted an article she wrote on why she hates Mother's Day. That's right, it's Mother's Day coming up in just a few days. And Lamott hates it because, as she says, "it celebrates the great lie about women: that those with children are more important that those without". The failure of not having children - either by choice, or by circumstance. And we drive home the shaft deeper each time we perpetuate the story that motherhood somehow equates to a form of success.

And marriage - there's another one. Having a "successful" marriage. And if you don't - if things break down between you and your spouse, or (perhaps even worse) if you never found a spouse in the first place, you've failed. You're a failure. Because a happy marriage is what makes you a worthy, successful person. Or so we tell each other.

Of course, it equally applies to school, and work, and health, and possessions, and pretty much anything else our life it made up of.

It all comes down to the stories we tell each other. If we do such-and-such, then so-and-so will result, and that will be success. But more often than not, things don't pan out that way. We look at the right side of the equation, at the result, and see "not-success", we see failure. And we conclude that obviously, we suck at math and might as well give up and go eat worms. But it never occurs to us that maybe we need to look at the left side of the equation, at the premise we started from. We need to look at the stories we're telling ourselves.

While we keep telling each other the stories of what constitutes success, of how we, or someone else, did this-and-that and look how well it turned out, without admitting to the times we fell on our faces, we will be forever stuck in the prison of our own making. We lock each other up in a jail of shame.

If you've never listened to Brené Brown's TED talk on Shame, I suggest you do so at the earliest opportunity. Her conclusion is that the most effective weapon against shame is sharing - the simple words "Me, too." Yes, me, too; I, too, have failed. No, I was not successful at what I set out to do. I landed on my face, and damn it, it hurt.

Because when we do that, we undercut the lies that are built into the stories of what constitutes success - and even better, we re-define what it means to be successful. We shine the light on the fact that the premise is faulty, that A+B does not, in fact, necessarily equal C, because perhaps there's a few Arabic and Greek letters in the alphabet soup to the left of the equal sign which do not lend themselves to neat Roman-cyphered answers. We change the story. And with that, we change the outcome.

I don't know about you, but I, for one, badly need a different outcome. I badly need to change the story that I tell myself, that I tell everyone else.

And so just to let you know: I've failed. I've blown it. I did not succeed the way I was sure I would when I started on this journey. There, that's my story - my new story. My new premise. And it's a little bit of a scary one. It's an uncertainty, it's messy. I can no longer point to a neat and clean premise, to an equation that says "IF - THEN". I don't know what's right any more, don't know how things ought to be done correctly for the best possible outcome. And you know what's the awesome thing about that? I'm okay with that idea.

Life, the Universe, and Failure. Changing the story is a powerful thing.


  1. Angelika, this was refreshing. I read something yesterday that said that we have to take our eyes off the outcome we want and put it on the process. That we set up baby-steps that we can achieve monthly, weekly, and daily that are challenging but that we can achieve. Then what we do is daily rehearse success. I certainly have no answers but that seemed helpful and it is certainly something that I can embrace. Openness is success. Honesty is success. Love is success. Authenticity is success. I think that you are very successful.

    1. Thank you. That's exactly the story-changing I'm talking about.

  2. Life gets messy doesn't it? We all have tried so hard, especially as parents, to "do the right thing" much less "follow the right steps". Someone put it well and an inmate said it just last week, "Failure is never failure unless we give up trying". So perhaps Winston Churchill had it right:
    Never Never Never give up!
    Thanks for getting that off your chest, Sista! Bet you feel much better now.

  3. If you look hard enough - usually the people that say..."if you do this....then that success will come out of it" have an agenda that is beneficial for them.

    Just saying!

    1. Yup. And/or they have their self-image invested in the outcome. As did I...

  4. Um, yes. Just ... to all of that. Don't even really have anything to add that you didn't already say.

  5. Wow - great post Amo. There's no one alive who can't relate. You've hit on a universal reality here.........you brilliant girl you! I was just talking with another wise friend about how the older we get, the more we realize we don't know much and we don't get much right...and learning to be ok with that is what wisdom is.

    1. There are, however, people who still think that they can do things "right", and who can't hear you when you admit to having failed at something they still aspire to. It's threatening, because it means they no longer can believe in the "IF-THEN" equation. That's why it's scary to own up to stuff, because you might have rocks chucked at you for your pains.
      However, the freedom to not have to carry on the facade any more outweighs the risk by far. You're right, to me, too, not knowing the answer is what maturity looks like. It's a beautiful thing.

  6. I hear you. Reading about those children who have been prodigies/wonderfully gifted/self-motivated/success stories makes us think that our kids, after years of homeschooling/unschooling/whatever you want to call it, SHOULD be the same. Years of believing that child-led learning is right, that keeping them out of school is best, that they really don't have to strive for a Dogwood, can be rocked by doubts when your child says they wish they'd gone to school so that they'd have been forced to do the work, get the piece of paper.

    There are choices to be made and by choosing one path you automatically reject another and eventually you realise that with hindsight things look a lot different. There's no point in having regrets, you just have to start from where you are now.

    My oldest son has been a challenge for many years, going through years of self-imposed isolation, teaching himself only what he was interested in and rejecting any outside interference. Now he's working, saving money, buying his first car and showing heartening signs of improved mental and physical health. I have beaten myself up in the past over my perceived 'mistakes' but I cannot take all the blame or responsibility (or credit) for how he turned out. It is his life and it is up to him to make it a success.

    Maybe there is no failure, only a different outcome from what we hoped for. If we can let go of attachments to certain outcomes, we can feel happier and more peaceful.

    1. Thank you for sharing your story, Nicola. That's what we need - more stories of people like us.
      And you're right, it really is just a different outcome. But all those stories we believed, still believe, in many cases, would tell us that IF we do X or Y, THEN the outcome will be Z. But maybe the outcome is ß, and the stories were wrong. That's why we need to tell different stories.