Reframing “failure” as an iterative processFeatured

My career path has been anything but a straight line.

It’s more like a wobbly zig-zag, lurching forward only to zip off in a different direction.

I have sometimes felt like a failure and a quitter, but I’ve learned to think of these experiences as an iterative process of trial, error, and course correction.

Life is full of unexpected challenges and opportunities (global pandemic, anyone?) and I hope my story encourages you to be more open to where life might take you and less afraid to change your plans.

I currently work as a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) metadata consultant. That means I work with cultural heritage and media organizations to bring their metadata in line with goals for greater inclusion and better representation of marginalized people, communities, and cultural traditions.

Metadata is basically any data we use to categorize and find things, whether on the internet, in a library catalog, or in a digital asset management system. Some of my projects have included designing data structures that accommodate collaboration, making online images more accessible to blind people or people with low vision, and creating custom taxonomies that describe people and culture in more accurate and respectful ways.

I love my work, but being a DEI metadata consultant was never a goal of mine. Instead, it was the organic result of a lot of different fits and starts. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Follow your interests in the moment, even if they don’t align with your plan

Of course you should have a plan, but be open to exploring what draws your attention at any given moment. We sometimes think of these interests as distractions from what we’re “supposed” to do, but such detours give you real information about what you like and are passionate about.

As a student, I was interested in art and social justice. I got an MFA in visual art, thinking I was going to teach art and expand the canon to include more women and people of color. But when I got in front of my first classroom, I discovered I was not a great teacher, and I didn’t enjoy it. At the same time, I was also taking a Photoshop class, and I loved that. So I ended up as a web designer, because digital technology was so seductively cool in those early days of the Internet, and it was an easier way to make money.

“Failure” is just more information

I worked as a web designer for about 12 years, and I was passable at it. I was always able to find work, but I began to notice that my friends and colleagues who were more excited and passionate about design were being promoted, while I seemed to be on a downward trajectory, working on projects that seemed to get more rote and less innovative. I felt like a failure, stuck in a dead end job.

But failure is just another type of information. After a while, I realized I wasn’t getting ahead because my heart wasn’t really in it. I was tired of working in advertising and marketing, where the goal of every design was to sell something. As the field expanded and got more specialized, I found parts of the work that I had enjoyed—information architecture and usability design—were no longer part of my job. I hadn’t failed as a designer; design had failed me.

When I realized this, I began to re-engage with the things that brought me to design in the first place: art and social justice. Instead of teaching, I started writing about art on the side, focusing on women artists and artists of color. But art writing wasn’t going to pay the bills, so I eventually quit web design and went back to school in library and information science: still working with art, information, and technology, but from a more socially conscious perspective.

Be willing to bet on yourself

I spent the next ten years as an archivist preserving entertainment history within institutions. I loved it, but then COVID happened. I was furloughed from my job, rocked to the core by Black Lives Matter and anti-Asian hate, and was grieving the loss of life as it had been. When my dearest aunt passed away the day before my 50th birthday, I decided I had to do something more meaningful with my career. A few weeks later, I struck out on my own to become a DEI metadata consultant.

This felt a little impulsive and was actually a big risk. Who starts a business in the middle of a pandemic? This time, though, I didn’t feel like I had failed. I didn’t need that information to know I wanted something better.

I’m a little over a year into my new role, and it has been great. I love having a flexible schedule and being able to choose my projects. I have been supported by colleagues and friends both old and new, and have experienced a lot of “firsts.” I taught my first online course. I ran my first focus group. And I made more money than I had in any of my “careers.”

But most importantly, my work now brings all of my interests and influences together: social justice, art, cultural heritage, digital technology, data structures, and organization. In my new role, I get to engage all of these skills and interests. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I hadn’t let my career path meander. Now I know that all those times when I failed or quit, it was an opportunity to gather more information about what I like and want to do. All those experiences weren’t dead ends; they were the building blocks that have enabled me to start my own business and do work that I truly love—for now. I don’t know what the next pivot will be, but I know I won’t think of it as a failure.

What jobs have you “failed” at and what did you learn? I’d love to hear your stories.
I've failed a lot in my career and have a similar bumpy path, but if you choose with your heart and follow your passion you will never fail. After all life is a series of events, some string together nicely in an organized process and others are windows and doors of opportunity that present themselves as open, where you must choose to walk through them. One of my favorite interviews was one where the interviewer chided me for having been at 2 failed startups in a row. I said, hey those companies failed but I did not - and here is what I did at them- adding my accomplishments at both in the conversation. I ended up rejecting them for their failure to show empathy and clearly they were driven by a false sense of what they thought success looked like. I have no regrets for the places that failed me as well in my career - they did not understand me and did not support my professional needs but my experiences there made me stronger and far more clear on what I needed. Employment is a 2-way street and if you don't run your own business you need to find a company that will give you what you need as well. I'm glad you found your sweet spot, it's a wonderful story of success.
Your journey is inspiring!
Thanks for sharing, @Sherie25! It's so true that sometimes it's the company failing us and not the other way around. I admire your positive attitude and assertiveness in emphasizing the things you did, personally, rather than the fate of the company as a whole. I think it's hard for us as women sometimes to stop blaming ourselves for everything that goes wrong!
I also have jumped from career to career, and am still trying to find my place in this world.When I was a kid (since I was 11), I used to stress a lot on what career I am going to have. I used to think "if I choose the wrong career, then I will be unhappy my whole life", and "I'd rather be poor but love what I do than rich and hate what I do".I set out to study medicine, and quickly realised it was not for me. But at the time, I did not have the guts to change paths. Eventually, I failed, and in France, if you fail the first year twice, you cannot try again. This was my opportunity to study what I actually wanted to study. Physics.I did my Bachelor's in Physics, while thinking I was on a path to a PhD and eventually becoming a professor and researcher. In my final year, I realised that as much as I loved Physics, I did not love the day to day job. I graduated and move on to study Computing in Malta. I quickly found a job as a front end software developer, and stopped studying after my first year as I felt I wasn't learning anything. I also started my first startup, TimeNinja. Eventually, I got government funding and left my job to focus full time on TimeNinja.I worked full time on TimeNinja for 3 months before realising it wasn't going to work. I had limited coding skills and my cofounder had left me. So I decided to further my studies in computing by going to 42 Paris. I thought, by going there, I'll become a badass developer and meet a cofounder. I went there in March 2020, but after 4 days had to be repatriated back because of COVID. During COVID I started another startup, Tixtri. This started off as more of a coding project between my boyfriend and I, but eventually we wanted to take it as a serious startup, and worked on it full time for 3 months. However, after 3 months, we realised that it was in an industry we barely understand, and have no passion for, and that we had pretty much accidentally stumbled into it. In addition, both of us didn't have a salary, and I wanted to go back to Paris to finish the course at 42.I went to 42, did the 1 month long entrance exam. It was one of my favourite months of my life. It was amazing. I learned a lot, not just coding. I learned a lot about myself, and I made some really good friends, who I see as potential future cofounders.I was planning to do the full course at a distance as we didn't want to live in Paris, however, then my family offered me a job to head the e-commerce & retail department at the family business which I joined a year ago.It's funny. I used to feel anxious about not choosing the right career, and then I studied medicine, Physics, and computing, and I now work in business. I love working in business. That being said, I still wonder if I am where I should be/want to be in the long term.
Wow, @ceciliamzayek! You are resilient! I so appreciate you sharing your journey through such different fields and circumstances. I wonder if we ever truly know if we're in the right place. Sometimes it feels good, sometimes it feels uncomfortable, but it's so important to keep asking and checking in with yourself. For most people the days of staying for 30-40 years in one company, let alone one profession are over. Kudos to you for following your interests!