Fail, learn, move forward

Let’s talk about failure.

Why does this word carry such negative connotations? Why do we fear failure? Why are we so afraid to fail? To accept defeat? To be knocked down?

I suppose it has a lot to do with the way failure makes us feel. Both in the moment and sometimes long — far too long — after the moment has passed. Failure stings. It doesn’t feel good. It’s tough. It’s humbling. It can feel unfair. It can have everything to do with us; it can have nothing to do with us.

No matter how it feels, I’m learning it’s important to remember that failure isn’t half-bad. The more I live, the more I realize there’s actually a lot of good in failure. There’s a lot of good to be drawn from failure. We learn a lot from feelings of failure; we grow a lot from feelings of failure. In fact, there’s often more to be learned from failure than success.

These lessons take time. Sometimes they reveal themselves when that feeling of failure is still fresh. At others, they unravel in the days, months and years that follow.

Feelings of failure come in all shapes and sizes. Often — perhaps a little too often — I think feelings of failure come from comparing ourselves to others. They come when we lose sight of our own North Star, when we start to focus on and compare our path to the paths of others. Unfairly so.

We are each uniquely us, and we’re all on a journey that’s uniquely ours. Rather than focusing on those around us — where they’ve sailed, where they’re sailing — which I realize is much easier said than done, it’s important to focus on our North Star. To focus not only on where we want to be but also what we need and want in our lives, to focus on those things that bring out the us we want to be, those things that fill our lives with warmth and joy and love.

Of course, this is all much easier said than done, and to be honest, I don’t think we always recognize feelings of failure. They often wear an invisibility cloak as they plant themselves and grow over time, watered by little doubts that crop up here and there. Feelings of failure are quite good at living in our subconscious.

Back in April — and perhaps a few months prior — I danced with a feeling of failure. At first, I didn’t recognize the feeling for what it was. I resisted it. I subdued it. I pushed it aside. But it was there. It was growing. Eventually it grew to a point where I couldn’t ignore it. Still, I didn’t see it for what it was.

So when I got honest with myself one Saturday afternoon, I was surprised with what I found.

•••••

Buenos Aires: the good, the difficult
Buenos Aires has a lot offer. It’s big, diverse and has a fascinating history. Personally, it’s introduced me to some warm, wonderful people — not the least of which are my friends Analia and Ruth and my Almagro roommates Ida, Maxi and Nahuel. My circle of Buenos Aires friends may be small, but for me, friendship has always been about quality over quantity. Living in Buenos Aires, I’ve found home among various people and also in various places.

Simultaneously, Buenos Aires is also a tough city. Maybe not for everyone, but it is for me. The city is thick, dense and flat — a concrete jungle unlike any I’ve experienced before. There are parks scattered throughout the city, but there’s really not much in the way of vast natural spaces. It’s tough to escape Buenos Aires and truly get out in nature. That’s a tough pill to swallow for someone who loves spending time outside, especially when you consider Argentina is home to Patagonia, one of the most renowned outdoor playgrounds in the world.

Patagonia was a key player in drawing my attention to this end of the world. When I moved down here, I had Patagonia in mind. I brought all my camping gear with me and was under the impression that getting around Argentina and South America would be similar to traveling around Europe in terms of ease and expense. I now know that’s not the case.

This country and this continent are massive, and traveling around them is not cheap. In fact, when I went to Colombia in March, nearly everyone traveling from the U.S., Canada and Europe had faster and cheaper flights than I did coming from Argentina.

Second-guessing life in Buenos Aires
In January and February, I was having thoughts of moving somewhere closer to nature, but at the same time, Buenos Aires was starting to feel like more of a home to me. My Spanish was improving; I was comfortable in my apartment; I was starting to build friendships with expats and locals; and I’d found a church I enjoyed going to every Sunday.

Thoughts of putting myself in closer proximity to nature were still there, but the more I sunk into life in Buenos Aires, the more I pushed them aside. In fact, when it came time to leave Buenos Aires and travel to Colombia in March, I really didn’t want to leave.

The night before I left for Medellín, I sat on my bed with Ida, my roommate, talking about a number of things. As we lounged around, midnight crept by and I told her my hesitancies at leaving, even for a month.

She smiled at me knowingly. “I told you this would happen,” she said. “It’s what happened for me. You meet people. Then you don’t want to leave. And the longer you stay, the harder it gets.”

I left. I went to Medellín, embraced my time and experiences there and March was an incredible month for me.

Then I came back.

I returned to Buenos Aires in April, and while familiar, everything oddly felt new again. Even though I had friends in the city and was picking up with them where we’d left off in February, it still felt a bit unsettling to be back in Buenos Aires. Leaving and coming back brought that feeling to life in a big way.

The seed had been planted before I went to Medellín, but being away really watered that seed. It wasn’t until I returned to Buenos Aires that I realized that seed had turned into a plant, a plant I could no longer ignore.

Even still, I initially failed to come to terms with what that meant. I realized I was returning from an intense, inspiring month away and also knew that I was quite simply exhausted — physically, mentally and emotionally. I wanted to give myself a bit of time to figure out how I was feeling and what those feelings meant for me. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions too quickly.

Ask honest questions, seek honest answers
I returned from Colombia on a Monday. My family flew into Buenos Aires for a visit that Friday; we had a great time together in Buenos Aires and Mendoza; and they flew out the following Saturday.

After saying goodbye to them, I parked myself at a cafe in Palermo Soho. Even though I was surrounded by people, I found myself in a moment of alone time — the first alone time I’d had in six weeks. For someone who savors alone time, that’s a big deal.

As I sat there that afternoon, sipping a latte, eating an almond croissant and getting lost in conversation with myself through writing, I got honest with myself. I started to work through what I was feeling, why I was feeling that way and what I thought I needed to do.

That afternoon, I consciously realized Buenos Aires wasn’t for me. But this wasn’t breaking news; I already knew this. So why was I having such a hard time with coming to terms with it? Or rather coming to terms with the idea that I needed to try something else?

The friendships and community I’d built in Buenos Aires were one hesitation. As mentioned above, I’d met good, kind people in Buenos Aires, and I really didn’t want to start fresh again. Still, I knew it was more than that.

Why was I holding back? Why did leaving scare me so much?

I sat and thought about it.

Then it dawned on me. Leaving Buenos Aires felt like failure to me. The thought of leaving Buenos Aires made me feel as though I’d failed at living there.

The minute I voiced the thought out loud — well, within my head but “out loud” to myself — I recognized it for the silly, unfair thing it was and questioned it further.

Why did I feel as though leaving Buenos Aires would mean I’d failed at living there? I asked myself, “Why are you so hesitant to leave Buenos Aires? If this is not working — if you are not getting what you need and want to thrive here — why are you so hesitant to pack up your bags and try something else?”

I realized two things.

First, I realized I was comparing my story to the stories of other people I knew in Buenos Aires. Expats who’ve been living in the city for one, three, six and nine years. Expats who are seemingly thriving in their Buenos Aires lives. I was measuring my “success” in the city against what I perceived to be their “successes” in the city. It’s amazing how easy it is to fall into the comparison trap, especially when you consider that we do not know the entirety of one another’s lives. We only see fragments, and often they’re our best fragments.

When I realized I was playing the “comparison game,” I realized how unfair — how absolutely, positively unfair — I was being with myself. Those people are not me; I am not those people. We are unique; we are different from one another. We each have our own wants and needs. What works for them will not always work for me, and what works for me will not always work for them.

Second, I realized that as much I thought I didn’t have expectations in moving to Buenos Aires last year that I actually did have some expectations. In looking back, I can see that when I set out on this journey I thought I’d be in Buenos Aires for at least a year. Because whenever someone asked me how long I planned to be there, I’d answer, “I don’t really know. I plan to take it a year at a time.”

I really didn’t know, and I stand by that, but even within that answer, I was more or less “committing” myself to at least one year.

I wanted to be the girl who moved to Buenos Aires and fell in love with it completely. I wanted to be the girl who thrived there, who fell head-over-heals in love with my life there, who came into my own there. I suppose part of me still wants that — perhaps not with Buenos Aires but with living internationally. But it wasn’t my reality. Plain and simple. Buenos Aires gave me good things, but it wasn’t the city for me.

So I realized these things, and in realizing these things and confronting and unraveling this feeling of failure, the lessons started to come.

Not every place will be for me
That Saturday afternoon, two blog posts by one of my favorite writers, Erin Outdoors, came to mind: You Are Not for Everyone and The Places You Meet Yourself. What I was coming to terms with was a blend of what Erin writes about in these pieces.

In the same way that we, as people, are not for everyone, we are also not for every place. Or rather, every place is not for us. There are people, places and things that will not be for me in the way they are everything for others. Realizing that a place isn’t for me shouldn’t be seen as a failure. It simply means it isn’t for me. And that’s okay. That’s more than okay.

I need to listen to myself. I need to listen to my heart, to my mind, to my wants and needs because I am uniquely me. My wants and needs are different from others; they are uniquely mine.

Living to learn
Throughout the past two months, I’ve started to realize that the six months I spent in Buenos Aires are not a miss. There’s so much packed within those months and within this international living experience. So much that I’m aware of; so much that I will recognize and learn from down the road; and so much that I will never realize, never come to terms with. I have no doubts that I learned a lot during my time in Buenos Aires. I lost myself in that city; I also found myself there.

I know this: I know that me living in Buenos Aires was not a failure — and I know it sounds silly that I was even thinking about it that way, but it’s honestly how I felt.

I know I’ll look back one day and realize that, after six months of really giving yourself to a place, discovering that a place is not for you is not a failure. That Saturday afternoon, I realized that, in a lot of ways, I would be failing myself if I continued living somewhere that wasn’t for me. Because what do I gain from being somewhere that’s not fulfilling to me, that’s not filling my soul in the right ways?

My time in Buenos Aires holds so much. I can’t fully grasp just how much I learned and grew in my time there, but I know I’ll look back at different points in time, connect the dots and continue to recognize all I gained in living there.

The sequence of our lives matters
It’s also not lost on me that Buenos Aires needed to come first. Buenos Aires needed to be the first city I fell into here in Argentina. Because I learned a lot from establishing a life for myself there that I now carry with me.

I know that moving and settling in somewhere takes time. Buenos Aires taught me to be patient with myself, patient in ways I’ve never had to be patient before. I learned how to make friends in a place where I’m starting from scratch completely, where I know no one — which is no walk in the park, especially for an introvert. I learned how to befriend expats and Argentines. I built friendships with people in English and in Spanish. And even with some distance between us, those friendships remain.

A few months into living in Buenos Aires, I took what I’d learned and treasured during my time in California — those things I was missing — and worked to apply them to my life in Buenos Aires: cooking and eating well; working out; going to church. (Of course, getting together with good friends fits in there, too.) None of these things were perfect for me in Buenos Aires, and some took longer than others to find and incorporate into my life, but in moving forward, I know these are things I want to build into my routine earlier rather than later when settling into any new home. They’re important to me; they’re healthy for me.

I also learned a great deal of Spanish in Buenos Aires. I knew nothing when I moved down here. I have to remind myself of that, especially now that I can carry conversations with people in Spanish. I still have a long way to go and will to continue to learn and practice, but I wish I had a video of my first few Spanish lessons and how much I was struggling. It is not easy learning and using a new language — I have a ton of respect for people who speak more than one language — but damn does it feel good when you feel you’re going somewhere with it, when you can express what you want to express. I love that language, in so many forms, allows us to connect with one another.

Buenos Aires knocked me down time and again. It roughed me up; it made me doubt myself; it brought me to tears. But it also gave me moments of hope and pride and belief in myself. This life is tough, but it’s also rewarding. Living abroad — especially in a country where English is not the native tongue — is not easy. But I wouldn’t trade my life and my experiences. For me, whether I see it now or realize it later, I know there’s value in all that I’m doing.

•••••

Moving forward
That Saturday in April, I came to terms with the idea that I needed a change of scenery. I began to accept and live into the idea that I needed to move on from Buenos Aires and try a new location. So throughout April and May, I made plans to do just that.

I’ve always lived in towns and cities that lie within close proximity to nature. Whether I’m in the water — swimming, surfing or a multitude of other water sports — hiking, camping or something else entirely, I cherish spending time outside. I need time outside.

So on the first Friday in June, I boarded a plane in Buenos Aires and headed nearly 1,000 miles south to Bariloche, a town on a lake at the foot of the Andes.

Life is a puzzle, and I’m testing the pieces.

I am trying not to get ahead of myself, and I am trying not to see Bariloche as my “solution.” In moving here, I didn’t think I’d arrive, settle in and that life would suddenly click and make sense. I knew and still know that I’ll have to work and chip away at building a life for myself here little by little in the same way I did in Buenos Aires. In moving here, I did my best to carefully manage my expectations.

That said, almost immediately, I felt and feel at peace in Bariloche. I know nature is important to me, but I often forget just how important it is until I’m back in the heart of it. Bariloche is a breath of fresh air. I’m living a little more than 10 kilometers outside the city. There’s a road that runs along the lake from Bariloche to Llao Llao, and I’m living a block from that road, and therefore the lake, about halfway between the two locations. With the exception of the mountains, which are everywhere, so many elements of this area remind me of Crystal Lake and northern Michigan.

I traded in skyscrapers and a massive, congested city for an expansive lake, towering trees and never-ending mountains — and it feels good.

Fail, learn, move forward
Standing here, I can see that what started as a feeling of failure has led me to a seemingly better reality. A reality that is healthier and more fulfilling for me personally. It’s not easy working through what feels like failure, but once we’re on the other side, there’s so much to learn from it.

As I was in the thick of April and May — coming to terms with my life in Buenos Aires and several seemingly “dark” moments in my life — Hannah Brencher, another writer I admire, shared this “Failure Contract.” There’s so much within this contract that speaks to me, but more than anything it’s this: failure is important. For that reason, we must commit ourselves to failure. We must commit ourselves to failure, and we must commit ourselves to living and learning through it.

We all get to fail, and that’s a beautiful thing. Instead of fearing and shying away from failure, as we so often do, we should be stepping up and owning failure — and not beating ourselves up over feelings of failure.

In the midst of failure, we need to be kind to ourselves, we need to be graceful with ourselves and we need to be fearless. Because failure is packed with lessons that help us learn, grow and become better versions of ourselves. Failure is a key ingredient to life. It’s a key ingredient to discovering who we are.

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