Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

Why We Should Relish Failure Like an Empanada


“Man is not what he thinks he is, he is what he hides.”

André Malraux

Every six months my company puts on an event called “Stories” where designers go up on stage and tell personal tales about their lives. We sit on small wooden chairs and eat empanadas while watching our colleagues reveal raw accounts of their past loves, fears, and failures. Attendance has swelled over the years and there are no longer enough small wooden chairs (or empanadas) to seat everyone. Why do people come? I think it’s because we are all ravenous for more intense human connection. And oddly, we seem to connect much better over intense hardships than we do over amazing successes.


For example, at a Stories event last year, one woman shared her struggle with infertility, including the pain of undergoing multiple miscarriages. Afterward many woman came up to her to offer their own personal stories, support and cushy bear hugs. Friendships were formed on the spot. If she would have told a story about being prom queen and the challenges of being popular, most of the women would have made a secret pledge to hate her. Hated prom queens receive no hugs.


However, even though we all know this, (and want more hugs), outside of safe Stories type events, we cannot stop ourselves from self promoting and painting ourselves in a perfect light. “I did this”, “I made that” “I won this.”  From perfect vacations to perfect babies, Social Media is full of our bragging.  But this does little to foster connection.


However, as much as I criticize humblebragging, I’m guilty. I only felt comfortable posting to Facebook about my failure (a.k.a. the “accidental masturbation cartoon to the office incident”– see below) because I had already posted to Facebook about the new house I bought in Lake Tahoe, which positioned me as successful.


Why did I need to let social media know I bought a house? I needed proof that yes, I had made it as an adult. Now everyone would know that I had managed to save enough money for a downpayment and was responsible and committed enough to manage a mortgage and a small house plant. I neglected to post that my parents offered to split the hefty down payment with me and I would likely be renting out my bottom floor to a toothless ski bum named Deuce to help cover the mortgage and keep the house plant watered.


Why did I neglect these items? Parental down payment help (despite my eternal gratitude) and toothless ski bum roommates would definitely take away from my achievement status and make people wonder if perhaps I really was capable of doing more than sending out masturbation cartoons.



Screen Shot 2014-09-24 at 8.57.48 PM

(do you notice how I cleverly perfected the screen shot to include my friend’s commentary of “brilliant”?  Even my mistakes seek admiration.).


At our biannual Stories event this week, one designer spoke about all the mistakes she made…for example when a project went awry not because of the client or the team or bad luck, but because of HER.  She challenged the audience to offer up their own failure stories when something was their fault. Her question was met with a tumbleweed type silence and we all looked down at our shoes and shoved more empanadas in our mouth to prevent us from talking.


I certainly wasn’t going to raise my hand and offer my admissions on typos in proposals, poorly led client meetings, or a really, really bad idea I kept trying to push doggedly forward. (e.g. “Drinklets,” the abacus bracelet that counts how many drinks you’ve consumed in a bar). I feared judgement.


But as I went home that night and dove into a jar of peanut butter for dessert (something I would also never admit) I realized that was stupid. I was ashamed that our fear of judgement left our storyteller hanging in her failures alone. With peanut butter hands, I quickly started writing down my long list of faux pas starting with my first job out of college.


At age 22 I worked in strategy for a high tech firm and was tasked with leading an Executive “Competitor Analysis” session.  I sent out what I thought was a very convincing email to the company executives to invite them.  It started with “Hola Competitor Analysis Compadres!” and went downhill from there.  The executives came to my boss and asked if I planned to hire a mariachi band for the meeting. I was reprimanded for my non-professional language for the first out of what would be many times. At first I was embarrassed by this story..but after sharing it enough times, I realized that others delighted in my faux pas and then quickly added their own to the mix. Faux pas = friends! Who knew?


If you’ve read anything on this blog you know I have a thousand failures in the love department, some dealing with (ahem)  my tendency to send new interests melodramatic wax sealed love letters. Many of you can relate and I’ve received even more amazing letters from YOU telling me your own stories.  ( remember, faux pas = friends!) But probably the greatest failure I’ve made in love was allowing a hurt from the past to affect much of my adult life. Outside of sending letters (words are easy for me), I’ve had a hard time to really trust and commit. Our own past can paralyze us and I think I was paralyzed for years. It wasn’t until I started admitting this to others (including one ‘other’ with a “Dr” in his title, leather sofa, and billing rate that exceeded my mortgage) that I started to get over it and move on.


That’s the great thing about hardships and failures – they are at a set point in time. They don’t have to define us. We can share them and move on from them. A mistake transforms into an amusing story that fosters friendship. So unlike my quote that started this post, we don’t have to be what we hide.  We can be what we share.  We aren’t in this life alone, you know. (faux pas=friends!)

And that in itself makes failure not just palatable, but deliciously comforting.

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