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success as a zero sum game -- notes from a loser and a failure

I went on a bit of a twitter rant yesterday about being a loser and a failure. And its been a while since something I wrote resonanted like that (at least on twitter, since a lot of my posting there appears to have become ‘day in the life of’ stuff).

This issue continues to be a pressing issue in my life. As I stand here at age 33 and an unambiguous failure. I have Failed. In this game called life, I’m a loser and I’ve already lost.

My issue, though, isn’t that I’m a failure. Yes. This has indeed been a hard thing to swallow. It’s hard to sit here and look back in hindsight at all the missteps (mine were very tiny) that accumulated into reaching this point. A point where I’m unemployable and fucking exhausted. Realizing that you’re a loser is tough and painful. It hurts.

But, as I said, this isn’t the problem. The problem is that in my failure, most people in my life are unwilling to accept my assessment of the situation. Individually, this is a bad thing. I get that most of my friends want to comfort me and try to give me hope or whatever. That they love me and that they don’t perceive me as a failure or a loser. I love them all for this. However, this all accumulates into a situation where my reality is one thing and everyone in my life is trying to convince me that it isn’t that. That I’m wrong about my current situation. This is the actual problem.

The support I need right now is trying to figure out how to keep going after you’ve lost at life. After you’ve failed. How to keep going after this when you know, deep inside, that you don’t have it in you to try again. That you are, unfortunately, done playing.

A lot of people take the above as a suggestion to encourage me to keep going. To try and motivate me to start playing again. But note at my wording: I’m not saying I don’t want to go on but that I can’t. A large part of this relates to disability. Maybe if I weren’t disabled, I might have the resources (after a rest) to keep trying. But I’m not and I don’t.

Not knowing that I was disabled for most of my life meant that I’ve spent the past thirty or so years pushing myself to perform at the same level as abled people. And while many people might not realize it, up until the past few years, I was actually accomplishing most of my plans as I laid them out as a teen. I wanted to go to China at some point. I did that. I told myself I was allowed to do as much post-secondary schooling as I wanted, so long as I stopped at 30 to start working. I did that (and got three whole degrees in the process).

At this point, I was supposed to be doing the career thing and getting settled into that. This is where I failed. There are a lot of reasons why I failed. Some are my fault. Others are structural. But it doesn’t change the reality that failing is exactly what I did. I’m underemployed in the last job I’m ever likely to get in my chosen field. Quite possibly the last job I’ll ever be able to get1.

Its weird, though, that I can sit here and feel like there isn’t any space for me to be a loser or a failure. I can’t talk about this without people trying to comfort me (which only ends up denying my reality). And yet… At least most of the people I know are socially and politically aware enough to know that not everyone can be a winner.

That success is a zero sum game. Even if we just take one aspect of our society, economics, a lot of us know that succeeding in a capitalist context means that someone else must fail. You only need to look around your own city/neighbourhood to see that this true. Viewed globally and its pretty clear that this is the functioning principle of our economic context2. Add in all the other structural issues like misogyny, racism, ableism, etc and so on, and suddenly there are also certain kinds of people who’re more likely to succeed and some who’re more likely to fail because of that.

Many of us can recognize this in the abstract. But when I talk about my personal experiences of being caught up in this, my experiences of failure, suddenly these realities vanish and it becomes about how hard I tried or need to try. It becomes solely a consequence about what I do or do not do.

Yes. Part of why I’ve failed is my own fault (maybe even large part considering). But it isn’t the only reason.

It isn’t like I don’t have options. I do. I even know what they are and how I could go about making them happen. Given my current skills and interests, it’d be relatively easy to switch from library tech to just tech. But then I think about tech culture and my brain just shuts down. Doesn’t matter that I spent the past three or so days coding in ruby. That I’m getting close to being able to write my own gems. That I built my own desktop a few days ago for my birthday. I just can’t.

And its okay that I can’t. Its also okay that I failed. That I’m a loser. Its really okay. I know to a certain extent why, beyond emotional attachments, people resist the idea of me being a loser. Because…. we expect certain kinds of people to be losers. And some of this is class-based (or race or gender or whatever). People don’t quite get how I can be as credentialed as I am, have the skills that I do, but still fail.

On paper, there isn’t any reason why I should’ve failed. And it troubles people. Because it means that they could fail. Anyone could fail. The story is supposed to go: a child of an immigrant goes to university, gets a job, and has the sort of life their parent only dreamed of. The story is supposed to be: as the first generation of people to go to university in your family, you’re supposed to elevate yourself above the blue-collar and poor status of your family.

The story isn’t supposed to go: you go to university, get some degrees (inclusive of a professional one), and fail to get a full-time job in your field. It isn’t supposed to go: I’m making less money than either of my parents at a comparable age (one was a high school dropout and the other a fairly recently arrived immigrant – and both speak English as a second language). The story isn’t supposed to go: I continues to live in extreme poverty and have tens of thousands in student loan debt that I’ll never be able to pay off. Nor is it supposed to go: after 30 or so years of working hard and doing your best to do all the Right Things, it turns out that you were disabled all along and that you’ve been borrowing a lot of future spoons and now you’re a barely functional person.

And yet this is my story. I’m a failure and a loser. And I’m getting to be mostly okay with this. Its okay. It doesn’t mean I have no value as a person. That I’m worthless and a waste of space. That I might as well just die because I’ve failed.

Sure. This is the message given by most of our current culture. To fail is to be worthless and a waste of space. Its part of why people fear it so much. Because failure has become tied to our moral worth. To fail in this society is to be a morally flawed human being. We sneer and look in disgust at those we perceive to be failures. Worse: we punish people for failing and blame them for it, despite our structural reality.

But I’m shaking off the stigma of failure. In a world where success is a zero sum game, some of us will always be losers.

  • I applied at mcd's the other day and didn't hear from them. Yes. I lied about my education. I put all of my relevant customer service info. I have very flexible hours. I've been applying at other food service jobs (particularly in the coffee industry since that is where most of my experience is). Nothing. Maybe I'll be able to swing it in the future. I don't know. 
  • I'm not trying to point fingers at 'successful' people. I'm looking at this as a structural problem. Yes, we could have a society wherein success for some doesn't necessitate failure for others. But we don't. My own experience trying to run a business that doesn't exploit someone has made me realize that even if you have the best intentions, one individual person cannot overcome this structural issue.  </fn></footnotes>