It happened in France, at the end of the 80’s, in a parking lot. I came out of the car, in shock. My chest was oppressed. My throat shrunk. I could barely breathe. I even moaned. I walked in the street toward the bus station trying to keep my composure, but I couldn’t stop crying.
I was 18 years old and I had just failed my driving test.
Not that I hadn’t had failures before this. I failed the written part THREE times before passing! But it didn’t affect me at my core. It was a matter of learning the book by heart – which I hadn’t. And even if I had, there were questions so ridiculous, it wouldn’t have made a difference.
For example: Does drinking water alter the effect of alcohol in the body? In good faith, I said yes. The answer was no.
Failing the written exam wasn’t great, but it wasn’t devastating either. It was actually consistent with my personal image of being a literary person, a dreamer and an original. My intellectual ability was far above a pedestrian multiple-choice exam.
For some reason, I thought that passing the driving test would be a mere formality. I thought I would succeed like everybody else. As a matter of fact, at the end of the ride, I looked at the instructor smiling, feeling satisfied.
Handing me the paper, he said, “Sorry,” smiling back at me with his own sense of satisfaction.
Because I didn’t anticipate failing, when I did, a core fear emerged.
Who did I think I was? If I had failed at something that was so ordinary, it was clear who I was. I was a failure.
After that episode, I failed the driving test two more times. It was a lonely, humiliating and painful experience where I learned nothing.
Soon after I finally got my driving test, I scratched my neighbor’s black Mini Cooper with my mom’s orange Renault 5. There were long orange streaks on her cute little black car. It was unequivocal who did it. But I felt too ashamed to say anything to anybody and acted as if nothing had happened. My neighbor probably had pity on me because she didn’t say anything.
A few months later, I had a car crash in Paris. Just dented bodywork, but still. I don’t remember mentioning it to anyone that time either.
In my 20’s, in no way could I face any of my failures or talk to anyone about them. I hadn’t even begun to look at them as growth opportunities.
Later on, I read the work of Chris Argyris and realized that I was one of those people he was talking about in his article “Teach smart people how to learn” (click here). A smart person with a defensive reasoning, usually denying my contribution to problems, putting the blame outside of myself and doing anything to avoid embarrassment, threats, feeling vulnerable or incompetent.
Each failure reinforced my belief that my value as a human was limited, low, and sinking fast.
Failures and mistakes were indelible stains on my self-esteem to hide.
Thankfully, it’s never too late to learn how to learn and be on the path of awakening. It doesn’t make looking at failures easier, but it gives a consistent frame to hold onto when we fall in a rabbit hole of negativity.
In 2002, when I moved to the US, I needed to pass my US driving and written tests. It’s an understatement to say I was anxious. But being aware of my baggage, and having chosen the path of working on myself as a career, I approached the challenge with greater maturity.
I studied, I practiced, and I asked for help.
I passed both of my tests the first time. The driving instructor told me that I was the safest driver she has ever met. I was a young mother and passed the test with my daughter in a car seat behind. Her presence might have helped.
Today, when the same daughter rolls her eyes and makes snarky comments because of my slow driving speed, it’s one of the rare areas where I don’t trigger myself.
I no longer associate my self-worth with my driving record. I might fail at driving fast, but I’m not a failure as a driver.
In other words, I understand that failing at something isn’t being a failure.
Was this the magic formula to process all my life setbacks? Not yet.
Reflective questions: Do you have hidden failures? Which failures have served you to grow? Which failures are you still processing?