At the Closing of the Year: On Failure, Success, and Sustainable Change, Part 1
Overall, 2015 has been a phenomenally successful year for me — both in the a typical sense (I achieved goals and made tangible progress) and in a less typical sense (I tried new things and failed in illuminating ways). Perhaps most importantly, though, I learned something immensely valuable about sustainable change and what drives it.
Mostly, I want to write about that last bit — what I’ve learned about what drives sustainable change.
First, though, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll do a little navel-gazing. In fact, I think I’m going to divide this into two posts; one in which I shamelessly toot my own horn (because every now and then it’s good to have a “Yay, me!” party!); another in which I write about what I’ve learned.
You guys, I freaking GRADUATED.
What feels like a jillion years ago, when I was a senior in high school, I took it for granted that I’d step right into college, zip through, graduate in four years, and then … um, whatever. I actually didn’t have any concrete post-college plan back then.
Life intervened. All kinds of crazy stuff happened. I started projects and … basically didn’t finish any of them, actually. I got bogged down in all kinds of stuff and wandered all over the map. Not counting the school where I completed a one-year computer network engineering certification, I launched my little educational barque in the waters of four separate institutions of higher learning.
At last, this year, one of them — Indiana University Southeast — became my “alma mater,” a place that would (as higher education should) shape not only my knowledge of a specialized field, but also my ability to think critically about the world and my character as a human being.
And all that’s really important, ofcourse, but there’s also another critical point: this year, I finally finished something.
Something arduous and challenging, in fact. And I finished well: I didn’t quite make the “With Highest Honors” distinction (which, in the long run, is probably good for my not-inconsiderable ego), but I only missed it by .02 grade points.
I’ll take that.
This year, I created a job for myself and, as a result, discovered that I love teaching.
When I decided that leading a Supplemental Instruction group for Behavioral Neuroscience sounded like fun, nobody was doing it. I had to propose the idea to the Supplemental Instruction Coordinator and to my Behavioral Neuroscience prof.
That was hard for me — but it paid off, and I discovered that I really enjoyed my work as an SI leader, even though I basically had no idea what I was doing at first and even though I had to get up really freaking early.
This year, I built a small-business website from scratch.
When Denis launched PorchLight Express, I didn’t feel as confident in my abilities as a web maven as I would have liked to. It had been a long time since I’d done any professional web work, and I wasn’t sure I could create a site that would uphold my standards. I was also absolutely petrified of implementing the e-commerce aspects.
The end product wasn’t perfect, but I was still pretty darned proud of it — and 2016’s version will be even better.
This year, I grew by leaps and bounds (heh, heh) as a dancer*.
I guess that was going to happen one way or another. As soon as ballet got its hooks into me, a certain amount of progress was pretty much inevitable.
But that’s not exactly what I mean. Mere ability isn’t that big a deal. Any monkey can learn to tendu (well, maybe not — actual monkeys aren’t really built for ballet).
What I mean is this: in 2015, I discovered confidence, musicality, and expression — mostly confidence. I recovered from injuries and kept plowing ahead. I stopped being afraid to go in the first group. I started talking to people I didn’t know. I launched myself into the dangerous waters of Advanced Class.
*Come on, it just wouldn’t be one of my posts if there wasn’t a bad pun sooner or later.
This year, I created a beautiful self-portrait.
It’s just a simple drawing in ballpoint pen and Prismacolor pencil, but it’s one of the very few visual works in my ouevre that I’d call art. Heretofore, I’ve done a ton of illustration, quite a few comics, etc. — but not much that had anything stirring beneath the surface.
That self-portrait, created for BlahPolar’s blog, re-awakened my desire to create works of visual art. It changed how I think about my art, as well.
There’s been a lot of that in 2015.
This year, I submitted my first graduate school application.
That’s an achievement in and of itself, I think — for anyone, but especially for those of us living with mental illness. To apply to graduate school is to make a bold statement about the future and about your belief
in your own abilities.
Perhaps more importantly, that application involved creating an audition video. For the first time in my life, I choreographed an entire performance piece and performed it with another dancer in front of a camera (once I discovered how much I like using video as a tool for recording and improving dance, I also recorded a bunch of solo improv pieces).
I found rehearsal and recording spaces, negotiated schedules, and learned to adapt my choreography on the fly with input from my dance partner.
While in some ways, that’s a far less profound kind of success than graduating from university, I think it’s probably the single coolest thing I’ve done all year.
This year, I didn’t finish an entire novel in November.
But I did work on one, and … um … that’s a start.
This year, I didn’t actually manage to pull of my performance thing at Burning Man.
I got pneumonia instead. But I did lead some basic ballet classes, and I did create a bunch of choreography, and I did discover that I love creating dances.
This year, I unsuccessfully auditioned for a performance.
I’ve written a little about this. I was a mess at my audition: I was recovering from pneumonia, hadn’t danced in weeks, and my choreography was far from finalized.
However, the mere idea of preparing a piece for audition transformed the way I thought about myself as a dancer — in fact, it may have been the turning point at which I stopped thinking of myself as a dancer* (*void where prohibited, some limitations may apply, etc.) with caveats and started just thinking of myself as, you know, a dancer.
It certainly revitalized my sense of myself as an artist: while I’ve spent my entire life doing artistic stuff, I have never thought of myself as an artist until this year. I was raised to regard that word with respect; to recognize the awesome responsibility that comes with creating art.
I can’t say I ever expected to see anything I did (with the exception of my poetry) as art.
And, though I talked a good game, I never seriously expected to regard myself as a real dancer.
And, yet, here I am.
This year, I struggled really hard with bipolar disorder.
I almost didn’t include this one. There’s nothing triumphant about this one. It’s the most qualified of my successes, and to call it a “success” is dangerous.
I don’t mean to imply that those who haven’t survived — and, in any given year, there are many of us, because bipolar has a terrible rate of attrition — have failed.
They haven’t. There have been years that only chance has kept me alive. Without ballet and without Denis, it is entirely probable that this would have been one of them — or even the year I didn’t survive.
Likewise, there’s no failure implied in deciding not to struggle for a while. Everyone gets tired. Everyone needs a rest.
But, on the other hand, I tend to discount — for myself, not for anyone else — the sheer effort required to live with this thing.
So, in the end, I’m including it.
I’m not sure that bipolar is one of those things where you ever win. There is no triumphal endpoint; no emerging permanently from the grip of the sea. So you take what you can get: you honor the survivors and you honor the dead.
The Final Summation
2015 has been one hell of a good year for me.
This year, I have done things I sometimes doubted I’d ever do (graduating!) and things I never really imagined I’d even try (proposing a job; auditioning for a performance knowing I didn’t really have a prayer).
Ballet has become an organizing principle; a prime mover. It has been the driving motivator behind some really significant changes. In short, it has provided a sort of razor for my decision-making processes: as a dancer, will this help me or harm me? It has made my life a lot easier.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that it has made my life easy. Living with bipolar is not easy; figuring out what to do with the year between university and graduate school is not easy; realizing how much further along you could have been if you hadn’t made x or y questionable decision eight years back is definitely not easy.
But ballet has become, for me, a source of clarity, and clarity is a good thing.
I don’t think I’ve ever met with this much success in one year before. I don’t expect every year that follows to be this successful.
But it’s cool to know that, in fact, I can do things. I can finish things. I can succeed.
That’s the best thing I’ve learned in 2015.
Well, that and how to use renversé effectively in choreography and how —at least sometimes — to carry off a coupé jeté en tournant.