Failure Vs. Success

This past week was a tough one for me at work.  I had to let go of someone that I could not  “reach.”   It was difficult for me to admit I just could NOT get through or be effective with him.  His being there could only change the dynamic of the class, and my response to him, in particular.  I felt that he would drag Day 3 of the class down, so I asked for him to be removed from the class.  I’ll call him “Tony.”

My reputation grows with every failure.–George Bernard Shaw

For the most part, the class was engaged and participatory.  It had its share of goofs, ready to banter with me for every comment I made, but I must take some responsibility for that happening sometimes, because I like to joke around, too.  Sometimes the boundaries get pushed a bit too far and I have to remind us all that though it’s important for us all to have a good time, there is work to do.

For those in a profession where one must be able to try to connect with a group of diverse individuals, I am generally adept at reaching people and being able to win most of them over.  But Tony was a different story.

The first day was a short day.  I arrived midday and for the first four hours of the workshop, we spend the majority of the day in self-appraisal subjects–identifying skills, interests, preferences and values, followed by learning how to construct accomplishment statements to effectively communicate transferable skills to a potential employer.  As a facilitator (not a lecturer), it is my job to engage the class.

Tony would have nothing to do with it.  He wasn’t disruptively belligerent.  He simply had shut down completely, typically unwilling to engage in any of the process.  I called upon him to be a scribe at the board for one of the topics.  He complied, though reluctantly so.

I noticed that he was not doing any of the exercises throughout the rest of the day, and asked him if he was okay.  It was a bit like pulling teeth to get him to acknowledge me, never making eye contact, but he finally replied, “This stuff just really annoys me.”  At the end of the day, he informed the workshop host and me that he would not be attending the second day–the job search techniques and resume building topics.

On the final day day, Tony was back in the classroom, sitting in the front third of the classroom.  Once again, he looked mad at the world.

Day 3 is usually the most fun for the students because it is highly interactive, especially with one another.  We have exercises in networking, delivery of the 30-second commercial, and mock interviews.  It’s certainly the most fun for me because it allows me to help them become engaged with one another, and they usually trust that I’m there to help them so they are willing to get up in front of the class for a mini-mock-interview with me by the afternoon.

Early that morning, I passed out the networking exercise, “Networking Bingo,” which requires them to “Find someone who…”  They have a grid with 30 different categories, requiring them to ask one another questions, and quickly get to know one another.  It’s not unlike a job fair, in many respects.  The purpose of the exercise is to teach them that networking is simply engaging others in conversation…talking to people. It’s been quite effective.

The entire class was a-buzz, up on their feet and looking for others who fit the description to have them sign off of the squares.  All except for Tony.  He was sitting slouched in his chair, head down, mad at the world.  Occasionally, I noticed others trying to engage him.  He initialed a few of the squares, and shoved his paper over in front of others, never once making conversation as someone else would oblige him with an initial or two.

As I made my way around the room, intermingling and leading the exercise by example, as if I were also at a job fair, I stopped by Tony’s table, bent down to try to establish some eye contact, and jovially claimed, “C’mon, Tony!  Up on your feet!  It’s time to find that opportunity!”

He averted his eyes from me, steeled himself against my attempts, and completely shut me out.  I must admit that I was annoyed.  I also felt defeated that I could not get through to him, and made the decision that his being there held no benefit to any of us.  I spoke to the host, asking her to observe for the remainder of the exercise, and to ask Tony to leave.  The rest of the workshop went smoothly.

I cannot give you the formula for success, but I can give you the formula for failure, which is:  Try to please everybody.–Herbert Swope

One of my struggles in life is wanting everyone to like me.  I want to be able to reach the world.  I think that it is possible to get people to respond in a way that I need to feed my own egocentric nuttiness.  Of course, that kind of thinking is preposterous!  Yet, I continue to try time and again to get through to others and help where I can.

Having Tony in last week’s class was a reminder to me that I cannot always influence others.  I am not in control of how others think, feel, or act.  There are just some people in this world who are not ready to buy into, try, or believe what I might be offering.  And no matter how I might try to frame the information, communicate with them, or change to accommodate their personalities or their experiences, I have nothing else I feel I can do.

I suppose I could have asked him to move to the back of the class where I would not have had to be so aware of how much he hated being there, but I wanted to give him a chance to find some value in the experience of a workshop with someone who cared about him as a person, and valued his contribution as a veteran. But Tony was mad at the world, at the Navy, and at me.

Of course, I realize (in my advanced age) that Tony is probably mad or disappointed in himself, his circumstance, and the consequences life and his choices have doled out to him.  He still has a lifetime to learn that lesson.

Having Tony in  the class reminded me that I need to continue to learn how to fail gracefully.   I was unable to engage him.  I became annoyed with him.  I did not want to have to deal with him and his attitude toward the Navy, or any part of the process I was trying to teach.  I did not want to have to dig down deeply in that last six hours to come up with any more strategies to try to turn the situation around. So I had him removed from the class, because I determined that it would have no impact on him as he was not ready. Although that may hold some truth, there also lies a sense of arrogance on my part.

What is also true is that I failed.   I failed the process because I made the decision that it and he would not work.  I failed the class in that they may have been able to influence, but did not have the chance to do so.  I failed Tony.  And I failed myself.

Granted, I do not have sole responsibility in the course of events.  I recognize, as well, that I had more than 30 others who were engaged in trying to learn new skills.  They deserved my energy and they also reciprocated positively, which is what allowed me to continue after feeling the sting of defeat. In learning to live and grow beyond the times I fail, I can then open myself up know how to recognize success.

But there is suffering in life, and there are defeats. No one can avoid them. But it’s better to lose some of the battles in the struggles for your dreams than to be defeated without ever knowing what you’re fighting for.–Paulo Coelho

That evening, I  received a note from one of the attendees, that jolted me back into the reality and understanding that I do make a difference with those who are ready to receive what I have to teach.  She shared, ” Thank you for giving me the pleasure to learn the things that you brought to the table for me…Your class was the first of many that I was able to get so much out of… No one had ever made me think about selling myself…”

Yes, I failed to make the connection to Tony last week.  But I also succeeded in reaching (at least) one person who “got it.”  And that is the reason I continue to risk the failures.  I owe it to myself to be able to see both.


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