Dear Graduates, I Failed and Failed Until Something Worked

Precariousness is a fact of life, especially now.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of commencement addresses commissioned by The Atlantic for students who will not be able to attend their graduations because of the pandemic. Find the collection here.
“If you smoke or vape or inject nicotine into your veins, quit now. Kicking the habit only gets harder as you get older. Same with drinking. It’s a blast until you’re 40 and haven’t accomplished anything besides remembering to tip.” (George Rinhart / Corbis / Getty)

Welcome, graduating men, women, and nonbinary people. Today is your day. Congrats! The downside of this ceremony is that there isn’t one. But at least it will be short.

At a normal graduation, some start-up founder whose key to success was being born rich would be lecturing you about the virtues of hard work. I’m going to talk about something different: failure. Not the big, splashy failure that happens when your company gets a rash of bad press the week before you go public, but the everyday failures that leave millions of Americans wondering how they’ll pay rent.

Fifteen years ago, I was where you are right now: at home. It was my college graduation, but instead of attending the ceremony, my then-girlfriend and I spent the day packing up her station wagon to move from Asheville, North Carolina, to Portland, Oregon. She did most of the heavy lifting. I stayed inside, preparing for the drive by rolling a couple dozen joints that I planned to hide in a tampon box, which I figured any male cop would avoid. At the time, I felt grown up. But I wasn’t, and the move, as anyone else could have predicted, ended in disaster. I lasted for almost three years in Portland before—broke, single, and homeless—I called my mom and asked her to buy me a one-way ticket home. I had failed.

But that was all in the future. The day of my graduation, I was still dumb enough to think that things would work out.

The only employment I could find in Portland was in coffee shops, so I spent mornings making lattes and stealing pastries from my boss. Afterward, I would day-drink. Usually, I was the youngest person at the bar. While I don’t have many clear memories of those days, I do remember one regular who smoked out of a tracheostomy hole in his throat, which brings me to my first piece of wisdom: If you smoke or vape or inject nicotine into your veins, quit now. Kicking the habit only gets harder as you get older. Same with drinking. It’s a blast until you’re 40 and haven’t accomplished anything besides remembering to tip. I’m not saying you shouldn’t drink at all, but what starts out as fun can derail everything. You will be surprised at how many of your friends decide to get sober later in life.

Lung cancer and rehab, however, are problems for the future. Your present is bad enough. You are graduating into the worst job market since the Great Depression. The jobs I could rely on when I was your age—minimum-wage gigs at coffee shops, restaurants, bars, and bookstores—have dried up. You can’t even go to a café, much less get a job at one. I wouldn’t be surprised if the only available work for new grads is at Amazon fulfillment centers, where you’ll eventually be replaced by robots who don’t demand bathroom breaks.

So what the hell should you do? I don’t know. In fact, I’m in much the same position: bored, stuck at home, and out of work. Because of the pandemic, I was laid off from my job as a staff writer at one of the only alternative weekly newspapers left in the country. So I find myself, once again, in a position I’d hoped never to revisit.

This is my sixth layoff since college. The first was at a coffee shop in Portland that sold lattes infused with a Peruvian aphrodisiac. Turns out there wasn’t a huge market for getting horny along with your morning coffee. Then there was the hair salon, the big-box retailer, the test-prep company, and the climate-change magazine. And that doesn’t even include the many places where I either got fired for not showing up or quit without giving notice. Once, I had a friend call my boss and tell him that she couldn’t give him any details, but I would not be coming back to work. What seemed like a good idea at the time left me unable to cover my rent, so I ended up selling my own plasma.

Failure can lead to progress. When you’re standing in line to sell your blood, you have to reevaluate your choices. And if you’re anything like me, you’re going to make a lot of bad choices.

Some of your more overachieving classmates know exactly what they want and how to achieve it. No global recession will hold them back. These lucky few were making plans for the future while the rest of us were still figuring out how to nurse. Resenting them is only natural. Fortunately, even those of us who wander for a while, who fail over and over again, can eventually find or create our own paths.

In my late 20s, I took a job—my 15th or 16th—at a small publishing house. This one was a clear step-up, because I had health insurance. But I was constantly bored. I was supposed to be editing textbooks but spent most of my time on the internet. When I ran out of things to read, I started a website called Babes of NPR, a repository of stolen photos of public-radio hosts with gushy captions about how hot they were. It drew a small amount of attention within the nonprofit-media ecosystem, a group of people who were not used to being complimented on their looks. At one point, I got an email from a radio producer across the country with the subject line “This is fan mail.” Click.

The producer was, unlike most of the people on my website, actually attractive. We started emailing, then texting, and then talking on the phone. What started out as fan mail bloomed into one of those obsessive relationships that work best over a long distance. Across many miles, you can create elaborate fantasies about your future instead of confronting the reality that the two of you are a terrible fit. We started flying back and forth to see each other every few months. I would have packed up everything in a second and moved to be with her—if she had asked.

And then, one day, she just ... disappeared. While I hoped she was just in a coma, the truth was much worse: I’d been ghosted. And so I did the obvious thing to do when one gets dumped: I wrote a humiliating letter to my local public-radio station about how meeting this woman had made me realize that I, too, wanted to work in public radio. Could I please have an internship? I’ll fetch your drinks.

Probably out of pity, a producer at the station offered me an unpaid internship. After that, I got a job at a public-radio station a few hours away. For the first time in my life, I’d set a goal beyond getting to the bar by happy hour, and somehow I’d accomplished it. And I could not have done so without the best motivator of all: spite. I would become successful, I’d decided, if for no other reason than to shove my success in my ex-girlfriend’s face. She might have won the breakup, but I would win at life. (Some people will tell you that life isn’t a competition. They are lying.)

I was at the public-radio station for only a year before taking a job at a digital magazine in Seattle—a job that would last for less than three years before, once again, I was laid off. But that pink slip turned into opportunity as well. I started freelancing for The Stranger, Seattle’s last remaining alt-weekly, and was soon offered a position on staff. For the next few years, I wrote about cultural and political issues and became something of a name in the narrow world of Seattle media. I earned less than a public-school janitor, but I appeared on national radio and TV programs, The New York Times published a story about me, and for better or worse (usually worse), random people in Seattle knew who I was. I got calls from agents and publishers and invitations to speak at conferences and colleges and on podcasts. In March, I was booked to be on an HBO show. They were going to fly me (first class) and put me up for two nights in Los Angeles in a five-star hotel. I’d never stayed at any hotel nicer than a Best Western. For someone who had spent most of my working life getting fired or laid off, things were, finally, looking up.

And then the pandemic hit. The show was postponed indefinitely. One by one, my speaking gigs were all canceled. And then, even worse, I was laid off again—this time from a job that I enjoyed. The timing could not be worse: Most news outlets were barely surviving before the pandemic. In just the past couple of months, hundreds, maybe thousands, of other journalists have lost their job. I may never get a staff writing position again. (Journalism graduates: I recommend learning to code, but do it through a community college, not a for-profit boot camp.)

And yet, after six layoffs in the past 15 years, I know that failure doesn’t have to be permanent, and that in another few years, I may come to see this layoff as a blessing in a face mask. Had I not failed over and over, I wouldn’t have had the crappy job where I started the blog that led to the girlfriend who led to the breakup that led to my finally getting my act together and actually starting to work. Although I would never give my ex credit for it, I might never have had the chance to write for a living had I not been dumped. The most powerful force in my career—or what’s left of it—has been failure. The same could be true for you too.

What will happen next for any of us? Who knows. At this point, my plan is to start pimping my goldendoodle out for stud fees. But something good—something we cannot see or even imagine right now—might eventually come from all this heartache.

So here’s the lesson: Success is no guarantee, but failure is—whether through your own choices or a chain reaction well beyond your control. But each setback is just another pinpoint on your trip through life. So harness your failures. Embrace them. When you get dumped or lose a job, or when your plans are all on hold because of a global disease, cry for a minute. Talk to a friend. And then let it motivate you to make changes—to close your bar tab, to work harder, to do something, anything, else.