What Failure Taught Me, With a Nod To Author Markus Zusak

As part of the final in Magazine Writing, I asked my students to reflect on certain aspects of the course, including the readings, their writing, and the lessons learned, as well as their ability to construct a well-written response to a writing prompt. This year’s students were asked to reflect on writer Markus Zusak’s wonderful Ted Talk for Question #1 (Zusak is the author of the acclaimed novel, The Book Thief). I asked them to consider their own failure(s) or something that they are afraid to do that could possibly lead to failure. I got a lot of interesting answers, but most of them discussed how failure has led to other things—better things and personal growth. As Zusak notes in his talk, it was writer Samuel Beckett who said, “Fail again. Fail better.”

When looking back on my life, I have failed at things a multitude of times. I’ve failed at communicating properly, at telling people how I really feel, at being kind all the time, at motherhood, wifehood, daughterhood, sisterhood, and the list goes on and on. But there’s one particular failure that stands out to me and changed me, and it ironically happened in a classroom in college.

I was taking a course called Communication Process, and my topic, one that was given to me (as I would never have chosen it myself), was communication apprehension. Its proper definition is as follows: “Communication apprehension is an individual level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person or persons.” Yup. Lucky me. I got that topic.

The irony of being charged with researching that particular topic was two fold: (1) that I had to present my findings in a 12-minute speech to the class, and (2) that I actually suffered from communication apprehension.

I was never comfortable being in front of a crowd as just me, standing and speaking in front of people. It was the reason I ticked off my 8th grade chorus teacher when she asked me why I didn’t audition for the play. “Because I don’t want to be on stage,” I said. “It’s too much stress.” Looking back, what a chicken I was.

Nevertheless, the more I researched communication apprehension, the more I began to suffer from it. I could feel my elevated heart rate every time I had to go to the library and find another source to suit the needs of the rubric. (And that was in the days when there was a card catalogue and no Internet).

microphoneWhen it came time for the presentations, the teacher also chose the order. I was second from last. In a class of 35, that was an eternity to wait, and a long time for communication apprehension to build. When I finally got my chance to get up and speak, I froze. Completely. I made my way along, until I could no longer take it. My hands were buzzing, my knees were knocking, my heart was causing all kinds of trouble in my chest, and I felt as if I could pass out. I asked to get a drink, and she allowed me to go in the hallway and calm down. When I came back into the room with questionable stares and few smiles, I became even more uneasy. The bottom line is this: I couldn’t finish my speech. I failed, and then felt humiliated by my failure.

I got away from the course by the skin of my teeth with a “C” because my other grades had been so good, but I’d never felt failure like that before. As a cheerleader in high school, I should have been used to being in front of crowds, but public speaking was a whole different game altogether.

When I came home after that spring semester and sat with my mother on the back porch, I told her that I might have to change my major—again. I had already switched from business to communication, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do. With solid coaching from my mother, I dared to try it again. Her advice: “Just be sure if you have to present again, you pick something you really know…something you are passionate about.” It was great advice, as long as the professor didn’t pick the topic for you.

I conquered that fear of public speaking by talking about the new part-time job I had just secured at the Baltimore Orioles in the new course I was taking, Business and Professional Communication. Standing at the podium in front of a large lecture hall in front of 100 of my fellow classmates, I went second and delivered a good speech, much to my own pleasant surprise.

That time, I didn’t fail. That prior failure made me never want to fail like that again.

I won’t lie—getting up and speaking in front of a large crowd still makes my heart go pitter-patter, but my years of teaching and standing before a group of students has made the process that much easier.

Three years ago when I was asked to represent our faculty and to speak at our Baccalaureate celebration for graduation, I accepted because I didn’t want to let the students down. I wanted to give them a good speech. Despite that there were 500+ people in the room, I used that energy to have some fun while I spoke from the podium. Plus, our university president was there, and when he saw me shaking it out before we processed into the gym and onto the stage, he told me his own best advice about public speaking. He said, and I will always use this tip for as long as I have to speak in public: “You never want to sit down when you’re done talking and say to yourself, ‘I could have done better.’ That’s what motivates me to give a good speech.”

I really loved this advice.

BaccalaureateSpeechVerni Looking back on that college classroom at the age of 19, I can say it was that failure that made me become a more serious student. With the acquisition of my job at the Orioles, I learned how to budget my time, get my studies done, and work a job that had incredibly demanding hours. My grades got better, my work ethic became stronger, and I developed a drive I didn’t know quite existed in me.

Whereas Zusak ended his talk with a quote NOT from a writer, I’ll take the other course and close with one from J.M. Barrie that is, surprisingly, not a depressing one. Barrie says, “We are all failures – at least the best of us are.”

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