[Week of failure] How I failed and survived

“실패는 결과 아니라 과정이다 : Failure is not a result, it’s a process.”

This post is contribution to Week of Failure.

 

I first heard these wise words from a friend a long long time ago. But as much as I understood the meaning of the words, the whole sense of it was foreign for me.

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Read on to find out why I was dressed as a unicorn.

See, for various reasons, I grew up hearing ‘you are a woman, so to achieve anything you have to better than anyone’, ‘you have to 150%’, ‘you cannot be second best’. And even when such talk stopped, it was already so incoded in my mind, that it has been dictating my life ever since. And that didn’t limit itself to studying. My constant focus was whether I was liked enough (“Black Mirror”’s ‘Nosedive’ should come to mind here). I could never be unliked by anyone. I had to be the friend of everyone and anyone.

As a teenager and a young adult I was blessed with luck. Whatever I set my eyes on, be it the high school my parents liked, the college everyone thought was appropriate for me or, when I finally took matters into my own hands, the overseas scholarship for grad school, I got it. Of course I was pleased with myself. But I had a million excuses as to why it was all the matter of luck not, you know, my own effort and merits. Because I could not admit that I was good enough.

My first lick of failure came in my first year in Korea, and it was probably the time I handled it best. See, before being admitted to actual university programs, we had to take a year-long course in Korean. What we found out in the process was that after crica 4 months of studying we were supposed to take a language aptitude exam (TOPIK) and it would be one of the key factors in determining which school we would get into. Obviously, almost everyone and their mother had their eyes set on Seoul-based universities because a) big, dynamic, vibrant capital city b) more prestigious universities = bigger chance of getting work after graduation = better quality of study. So the competition was high. Now, if, like some of my colleagues, you had previously done a whole undergraduate degree in Korean studies, TOPIK was a walk in the park. But not after 4 months. Oh yeah, they did say that other things would be taken into account, but I was a plain ol’ business major. There was absolutely nothing competitive about me (in my eyes). So against everyone’s advice I signed up for intermediate exam (because ‘you have to stay ambitious’), locked myself in my dorm room and started studying the shit off my pants. I plastered the walls with vocabulary, idioms and grammar. After 6 hours of language classes, I would spend another 3 revising, looking up upcoming classes, trying helplessly to solve tests. To release my growing frustration, I would take the bus to Seoul (I was stuck in Cheongu, about 100km south) on Friday afternoons, club and drink my way into Saturday morning, and come back home on the first bus. Disclaimer: My compulsive study method was bound for failure. My brain was literally frying itself, while I was effectively beating myself up about not being good enough (the only good that came out of all this is that I forced my Korean friends to stop speaking English to me, refused to speak to strangers in English, no matter how silly I sounded, and therefore gained confidence and ease in talking in Korean). I knew I failed mid-through the exam. After I was done, I went to my dorm room, pulled off all the grammar and vocab sheets and cried myself to sleep, to the slight worry of my roommates. But then came the next day and I woke up like a phoenix from the fire. So, yes, I failed the language portion. But I could still convince people that I was a worthy candidate (this may be the only moment I actually believed… I was good enough). And so started my crusade around Seoul universities’ admission offices, deans and professors, where I pitched myself as a hard-working, eager seeker of knowledge. Long story short, it worked in my favour. I was offered to drop the Korean Government Scholarship all together, get Yonsei University (one of the top schools in Korea) one instead and do a Global MBA. I was again on top of my game.

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True story: this is how my room looked like before the topic exam. Ignore Lee Byunghee poster.

GMBA is an episode all on its own, that involved a lot of personal drama, worthy of a soap opera and a science fiction film (entitled ‘The disappearing me and other stories’). When all my foreign classmates were shitting bullets over getting jobs, I managed (again, I thought it was a fluke of luck) to get into one of the biggest corporations. And because I thought I didn’t deserve to be there in the first place (after all it was luck not my merits that got me there), I was ready to go up and beyond to please my superiors (who obviously took me in out of pure pity, so I had to prove my worth). This meant that ‘no’, ‘I won’t’ left my vocabulary. Long hours? Weekend work? Drinking until wee hours of morning (to go back to work in a couple of hours)? Room saloons? I would agree to everything with a smile on my face, even though somewhere on the inside I was raging. The thing is, both my body and mind weren’t keeping with the workload and stress, as well as moral distress I was serving out like hot buns. To cut to the chase, on top of clinical depression, I ended up with an eating disorder and self-harming. But although I was aware of the problem (took the benefit of an in-house psychiatric clinic) I.could.not.fail.my.team. So when my doctor said that I have to go on sick leave, or else he cannot guarantee me surviving the next month, I burst into tears. ‘But the project! We have to submit the proposal! There is a customer visit coming up!’ I weeped. However after a week, which included me having a few bulimic episodes, cutting my wrists and having endless sleepless nights, I couldn’t deny that I needed some time off. The whole process of actually getting approved for sick leave was probably the most humiliating in my life, because to actually get one, other than a doctor’s opinion, I had to get the approval from all my superiors. Who never knew there was something going on with me in the first place. I felt, to put it mildly, like shit and failure rolled into one kebab of humiliation. Like I failed my team. My beloved team leader. My colleagues. My company (yes, I was a bit in love with my corporation. I still sometimes cry when I see news about it).

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I looked pretty sleek as the corporate poster girl.

Despite feeling shitty about myself, I was pretty much saved by bartending (or more like my bartender friends who were like ‘no, no, no, you cannot stay in bed all day. Come help us out at the bar’). And while it should have been just a short stint to get me through my sick leave, while I come up with a plan for myself after I leave the corporation (which I did the day my sick leave ended. It was epic. I wore a unicorn costume), my compulsiveness kicked in and I ended up desiring to be a bartender. Not just A bartender. Seoul’s best bartender. Disclaimer 2: there is no chance in a million to become even a mediocre bartender in a few months. It’s not even about skills and knowledge (although that too), but also about network and reputation (the only thing I has going for me here was that I was white and could speak Korean). Ha! I was ambitious enough to want to run my own bar! And so I became a bar manager of a hole-in-the-wall illegal bar. I even put a hefty amount of money as an investment, hoping that someday it will be legal. But things weren’t going my way, customers weren’t coming and paying millions (wait! was it because… it was a literal speakeasy??) and my savings were shrinking by a week (interesting fact most finance majors are terrible with personal savings…true story!). And the unbearable feeling of failure kicked in. I was supposed to show everyone, my corporate friends, my family, my artsy-fartsy hipster partners-in-crime, what an awesome hipster entrepreneur I was. In the meantime, I had the feeling of falling through a dark hole and it was not Wonderland that was waiting at the end. It only got worse. there was a short stint in Thailand (bartender course), where I pretty much felt I was looking at everyone and everything through a glass window. After that… I had a major lockdown. I turned off all my mobile and stationary devices, stayed in bed all day, binged and thought about not existing. If it weren’t for my family and friends, who became frantic when I went MIA, I would now be literally a rotting body in a condo in Itaewon.

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To be fair, our hole-in-the-wall bar looked pretty sick.
And I made all the syrups and ginger beer.

What came next was 10 months of intensive psychiatric and psychological treatment, where I had to revisit a lot of dark spots of my past and my personality and come to terms with them. I ended up focusing on asking myself what I really NEEDED and WANTED from life. It’s still a process in making. And by no means am I 100% well. In fact, it’s very likely I will never be. I will always be neurotic, anxious, sensitive, and overcompensating. But now I’m not sorry about it. Not one bit. All the experiences, all the failures, and drawbacks… they make me who I am now. Stronger? Maybe. Wiser? In some sense. Aware? Definitely.

Sure, the old me would be very very distressed at the moment. I’ve been declined on a few projects, dismissed on several job offers, tricked into getting paid less than I deserve, and pretty much sexually ridiculed by someone I thought was a friend. And don’t ask me what I going on with my bank account (‘not a whole lot’). Sure I’m not happy about these things. But now at least I can name them, talk about them outloud and ask for help with dealing with them (although I did have a cry recently when I confessed to a guy that I liked him and he burst out laughing. Oh well. At least my roommates ROFLed about it). I also know none of them are the end of the world. In fact, very few things are. And while one door closes, another opens. The journey continues into infinity.

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Things don’t always go according to plan, but there is no need to guilt trip oneself.
Lesson learned, move to the next plan.

This post required me to go through 2.5 cans of beer. It’s not easy being so public about oneself. But if it helps anyone, let it be. Failure is mother of success. Maybe not tomorrow, maybe not next month, hell, maybe not next year. But eventually. Just be as good as you can. No more, no less. And this is what I want to tell the 21-year old me. And anyone else, who would listen.

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