When failure results in a dead end?

Whenever a difficult and worthwhile pursuit is undertaken, an ethic emerges. If a goal is valuable, sacrifices are made to achieve it, delaying gratification. The ethic manifests such that the individual seeking the goal feels he is worth the goal or has earned the goal because he has sacrificed so many other things in pursuit of it. However, repeatedly failing to achieve it can skew how one perceives himself and thus turn on its head the proverbial belief that hard work does eventually pay off.

Before failing the Bar exam, I had already adopted such an ethic and had told myself that becoming an attorney was a worthy pursuit; to me, it was, but only insofar as it would be a vehicle for me to make money and achieve material gain. Truthfully, I had very little ambition to be an attorney serving his community or pursuing some lofty civic duty. The simple fact is that I wanted to make money. Thus, all the sacrifices law school demanded, and the ethic that emerged, were all worth it to me.

In the aftermath, the most difficult aspect of failing the Bar (and of failing to complete any worthwhile pursuit one has worked so hard for) is managing the self-doubt about one’s abilities that begins encroaching like a cancer into other aspects of life. My repeated inability to attain the goal I had been singularly focused on resulted in a personal encounter with something terrible and unknown: The hard work was not paying off. Worse still, I felt as if I was squandering my time and going nowhere. My inability to achieve a goal, which my ethic told me was inevitable, began to cast doubt about my abilities to accomplish other things I set my mind to, even the performance of what had been until that point mundane tasks. The cancerous thoughts attached themselves to otherwise normal errors or shortcomings, and unmercifully and exponentially magnified their significance. This, I realized years later, was toxic shame, and I found myself in a swampland of the soul, unable to forgive myself for my failures.

Moreover, lacking faith in my abilities or harboring a fear of the unknown would simultaneously prevent me from finding any meaning in my suffering. Instead, it turned out, my fulfillment lay in the potential to find meaning in the uniqueness of my own personal tragedy. What I sought was the knowledge that I was not merely the sum of the terrible emotions that were occupying my mind, and that I could yet add something to this equation to yield a positive result. My vulnerability presented the experiential, creative, and attitudinal values with which I would have to reshape my life. I had to consider that these failures themselves might be where I would find the answer. What I sought was meaning. In order to find it, I would have to risk being alone, open, and vulnerable to the nature of reality, and to confront the unknown world that exists on the other side of failure.