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Success Is Messy

That big flop could turn out to be your big break

A week into my sophomore year of high school in 1965, I entered cheerleader tryouts with the confidence of a returning veteran. The scene is as vivid as a movie — a silent movie, because silence was the sound of my name not being called. Girls were hugging. Some were crying; I was one of them. But that day I tried out and failed was the luckiest day of my life, because I was free to try something else. Free to discover a talent I never knew I had. I joined the speech team. A month later I brought home a trophy labeled Extemporaneous Speaking: First Place. Current events were my specialty.

The first thing I did after finishing college was flunk a typing test, a screening that in those days — for a woman — was practically a prerequisite for a job. Eleven words a minute! But 1972 was an election year and I'd been a political science major, so I found a job in politics, where I was immediately installed at a typewriter! My morning began with a stack of envelopes to address, and it ended with a wastebasket overflowing with misaddressed envelopes.

My desk sat outside the office of the state party chairman. A reporter could casually chat me up while hoping the boss might step out and make a little news. But one day a TV reporter delivered some news — for me. The newsroom had an opening for a reporter: "a female-type person," he said. Though I had neither experience nor a degree in journalism, I had been a champion extemporaneous speaker in high school. It took a while to connect the dots, but the arc of a successful career began on the day I failed to make cheerleader. Failure can be a step in the right direction.

Many of us face an uncertain future in these trying times. But trying times can be a time to try something new — to stretch the boundaries of your comfort zone. As Herminia Ibarra writes in Working Identity: Unconventional Strategies for Reinventing Your Career, most successful career transitions involve "a messy trial-and-error process."

In 2004, I tried a new TV format, a daytime talk show. It barely lasted a season. Recently I returned to the working world. In my new office the first thing I see is a poster-size picture of myself. It's not a vanity thing. It was a publicity shot for the daytime show that failed! Before The Jane Pauley Show even started, I told my kids that its odds weren't great but that my definition of success was having the courage to try. The picture inspires me to keep trying.

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