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On Failure, and Not-Failure

On Failure, and Not-Failure

I just finished reading Bréne Brown’s new book, Rising Strong, which is awesome (not surprisingly; she is the best). It’s about the process of taking life’s risks (big and small), falling on your face, and getting back up, so I’ve been thinking about this in my own life more than usual.

The past few years, and the last year in particular, have been very strange for a couple of reasons. One, a lot more people know about my work and what I do than ever before; and two, I’ve experienced what most of us would consider professional success. These are awesome things, and I am really grateful for them every day. However, they come with some weird side effects. When we don’t know someone personally, it’s totally normal to make false assumptions about who they are and what they're like. I mean, we all do it. But it's super weird to hear people's assumptions about YOU.

The “fact” that I hear (or hear about) the most? I don't know what failure is like, because everything comes easily to me. To this I say: BAHAHAHAH. But also: I get it. To an outsider who’s only seen the growth of my company over the last few years, sound bites of interviews--which often include shit I didn’t even say, btw-- and instagram, I totally understand why it may seem this way. Even my man-friend, who I’ve been with for close to five years, has a somewhat incomplete view of my track record with success. (Which he is even more sensitive to than most of us, given his job as a Hollywood screenwriter, aka The Hardest Job To Succeed At In America.)

I wish he’d known me earlier. I wish all of you guys had known me earlier. But there’s a reason you didn’t. I was busy having like 43 different jobs and not wildly succeeding at any of them. I am 39-and-a-half years old, and in the greater context of my life – including my adult life -- I have fallen on my face a shitload of times. As an exercise, here’s a very incomplete list of my life’s “failures.” With the benefit of perspective and hindsight, I don’t see very many of these things as failures anymore, but at the time, they sure felt like it. Incomplete list of personal failuresBut my biggest adult failure is this: I failed at working in advertising, pretty much every day, for the better part of a decade. I failed to sell work, failed to win awards, failed to get the right kinds of jobs and assignments, failed to get the promotions I wanted, failed to be tough enough, failed to prove to every boss that I was talented, failed to be good enough that I didn’t get canned.

When I started out, I believed with my whole 26-year-old heart that I was going to fucking kick ass in my advertising career. I won a full scholarship to portfolio school, and won every student award, and came out of school with, like, the best student portfolio ever in the history of anything. And then, I Glory Days’ed. I just made up that term, but you know what it means. I peaked as a student, and none of that promise ever converted into significant success in the real world. I did okay, but I was never great. Yet, I banged my head against the wall every day, trying to become great. Every day was a new attempt to prove to myself and to everyone around me that I was enough and I deserved a spot at the table. (Brené Brown calls this “hustling for your worthiness,” which is exactly what it felt like.)

I switched jobs almost every year, honestly believing my problem was having Joe Dumbass as my boss, or working on the tween yogurt account, or with Bro & Partners’ agency culture. (All identifying details have been changed.)

In the end, my problem wasn’t the ad business, it was me. I don’t have the right temperament for advertising, and ultimately, I wasn’t all that good at it. But after sacrificing so many late nights, holidays, and weekends trying my hardest to make it work, and having so much of my identity tied up in it, that realization (and the accompanying feeling of Ultimate Failure) was a really nasty pill to swallow.

The story of how I started my company is in my bio, so I won’t go into that here. As it turns out, I use all the skills and lessons I learned at ad agencies every single day in my current job. I couldn’t do what I’m doing now, the way I’m doing it, if I hadn’t had that experience first. (Not to mention, the “failures” I’ve experienced are a huge reason I’m good at making things people can relate to!) But when I was fresh out of my last job, feeling totally unmoored and like I’d just wasted a huge chunk of my life, there was no way for me to know what the future had in store. On Failure card

So do I know what failure feels like? Hell yeah I do. I just try to look at it differently now. I wrote our “On Failure” card, pictured above, while I was eating dinner by myself at an Italian restaurant in midtown during the 2013 National Stationery Show, which was the first time I showed my brand-new card line to the public. I wrote it in my journal as a meditation, a reminder to myself, and a way to actively change my attitude around failure and what it meant. Now it’s hanging in my office. TL;DR: Social media is a lie and I fail all the time. But it turns out failure is kind of a lie, too.

Xo Emily

PS: By the way, if you think for one minute that my company’s growth means it’s all been smooth sailing in this context, all you need to do is read my recap posts and you’ll see there are PLENTY of mistakes in there to go around. Strangers on the internet greeting card