An Ode to Failure

“Tell me about your mistakes,” Sara Blakely’s father used to ask every night while she and the rest of their family ate dinner. She and her siblings would go around the table, comparing notes, discussing when they had messed up.

“Congratulations,” her father would tell them.

They would celebrate their mistakes. What a novel concept!

Sara Blakeley, by the way, went on to grow up and found a billion-dollar company. I watched her Master Class after earning my post-graduate degree. She had extremely practical tips for entrepreneurs, and celebrating your mistakes was something she advocated.

The thing is, mistakes are what take us out of our comfort zone, and outside of our comfort zone is precisely where we can acquire new skills and learn new information. As my niece would say, “Making mistakes is a sign that you are learning.”

Oh, but doesn’t failure hurt. My goodness, but it hurts.

I just recently learned that a good number of my students have passed the most recent round of FCICE testing. The news is extremely gratifying; they worked so hard, and they persisted in their studies even when it meant enduring long hours of difficult and frequently humbling studies.  They deserve to celebrate.

However, the heartbreaking messages are from students who have received disappointing results: the same point breakdowns after a year or longer of intense studying; point breakdowns that have gone backward. News that feels like a smack in the face to all their hard work.

The year I graduated college, I applied to a telephonic-interpreting company. I was told that my Spanish wasn’t nearly good enough to work as an interpreter. The woman actually laughed at me.

The following year I failed my court-interpreting exam. This one I was expecting; I knew the odds were against me and that I still had things to learn. With some attitude shifts and a lot of additional preparation, I passed it, along with other certifications to follow. But I certainly haven’t passed all the exams I’ve ever taken. My most devastating failures have been a portion of my exit exams (luckily I took extra exams, so it didn’t actually matter, but the blow to the ego and my sense of self as an interpreter was real), my Translation Bureau failure (one day this may allow me to interpret for Canada’s Parliament), and the U.N. interpreting exam (that one I knew was a long shot).

In some cases, colleagues and study partners succeeded where I failed. Sometimes, these failures hurt. Of course, it’s not super fun to blog about my failures, but there they are. And know what, at the end of the day, I should be proud of them. We all should be proud, because our failures mean that we dare to dream big.

Our failures mean that we have tried.

Our failures mean that we venture out into scary waters.

Our failures mean we dare to reach for our dreams.

I have been beyond impressed by the attitudes of my students who have not yet passed particular exams but are still trying. They are handling the navigation of their dreams with integrity and grace.

So, I’d like to offer a poem I wrote a couple years back. Please enjoy.


Ode to Failure

Failure spells cool tears streaking down your cheek

Hot pounding clenching in your chest

Dizziness roiling in your belly

Failure is that moment when you are let.


Failure is energy + expectation

Where you wished the outcome were X, but it is in fact, Y

Failure is attachment to results.

Failure is 99% when you wanted 100.

Failure is subjective.

Failure is the hot shame of humiliation,

The real or imagined judgement that

follows your supposed fall from grace

Failure is embarrassing.

Failure looms in the shadows, sowing panic and despair

Failure makes us refrain from trying—if we don’t try, we cannot fail

Which, in itself, is failure.

Failure makes us cast blame. Failure makes us make excuses.

Blame and excuses are preferable to navigating the obstacle course of shame and humiliation that is failure.

The exhaustion from falling down nine times just so we can get up ten.

Of trying, and trying, and trying and still not getting what we want.

Failure is annoying.

Failure hurts.

Yet those who face failure…

Are the only ones

Who can rise above it.

Portrait of Athena MatilskyAthena Matilsky fell in love with languages the year she turned sixteen. She majored in Spanish interpreting/translation at Rutgers University and also studied French. After graduation, she taught elementary school in Honduras and then returned home to begin freelancing as a medical and court interpreter. She later became a staff interpreter for the NJ judiciary. She has gone on to earn certifications as a healthcare interpreter and a federal court interpreter for Spanish and as a court interpreter for French. Most recently, she received her Master’s Degree in Conference Interpreting from Glendon at York University. She currently works as an interpreter and teacher, training students to acquire the skills necessary to pass state and federal interpreting exams. When she is not writing or interpreting, you may find her practicing acroyoga or studying French. Website:

Featured photo: a collage of images that evoke stubornness images:  “Lions Family Portrait Masai Mara” by Benh LIEU SONG from the Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license; image from “Franck Dion, Capricorne à l’affiche 2014” by Franz Narbah at under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license; “Skog” from Ikkepedia under a CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 license; “Âne de bout” by Mypouss at flickr under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license; “Bélier Bizet” by ImAges ImprObables at flickr under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Text-body photo from “Persévérance, la clé du succès – Par une froide journée d’hiver” by Simon LEE at Stileex – Maths, Data & Information, under a CC BY 4.0 license.

10 thoughts on “An Ode to Failure”

  1. Alina Salvat says:

    Absolutely ALL true! I’m someone who took the Oral Proficiency court Interpreter exam 3 different times. I passed one time in the Mid-Atlantic area of the country after failing it twice. After moving to IA when my spouse had to move for professional reasons, the state of IA required me to do the oral proficiency exam again, despite the fact that they could clearly see that I was and am a certified court Interpreter by looking at the information in the NCSC. Their stated reason is that in PA they give the oral proficiency exam over 2 days, and they want Interpreters to pass in one sitting. This made me angry and, in fact because I was angry, I did not take the oral proficiency exam in IA. Instead, I did the exam in MN. The way I saw it if the state of IA wouldn’t accept my certification from the NCSC, then they were not going to get my money to take the test again. I took the test in MN and, even though I was out of state & it cost me more money (exam registration) to do so. That’s also not considering the hotel stay, the end result was my passing again. The main point is NEVER give up!

    1. Yes, that is definitely the point! Never ever give up. 🙂 Thank you for sharing your story. It has frustrated me, too, that different members of the consortium do things differently and reciprocity is not always a given. But at least the process is more streamlined now than it was before! Onwards, we go.

  2. Barbara W Considine says:

    Lovely piece and poem. Thank you!

    1. Athena says:

      Thank you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. 🙂

  3. Barbara W Considine says:

    Thank you for this inspiring and humble posting!

  4. Lillian Payero says:

    Thank you for sharing these important thoughts about failure in our interpreting careers! And for sharing your poem. Something that has worked for me in recent years in terms of using failure as a tool for growth has been just jotting down at the end of an assignment a short, precise list of things that I wish I had done differently. Or making a mental note about it, in clear, objective sentences instead of just giving in to feelings of frustration and shame. The desire to have the ability of going back in time and changing things is strong, but at least just recognizing what I could have done differently does help me improve for next time. I also write down or make a list of some things I did well to keep my morale up, Haha! It does help. It also helps to talk with understanding colleagues!!

    1. Athena says:

      I love those practical tips Lillian, thank you! A lot of the work really is in separating ourselves emotionally from our work product, i.e. not allowing our disappointment to define what we are professionally. The act of writing things down on a list like you do can help with that compartmentalization. And yes, absolutely we have to track what we do well! I have to remind myself that a LOT. Take care!

  5. Andreea B. says:

    Such a great post Athena! For many of us, it takes a long time to develop confidence and build a positive learning relationship with our own mistakes.

  6. Yadira Call says:

    Your post touched my heart to tears, Athena. Thank you for bearing your heart. Thank you for your unrelenting support. Thank you for your example and encouragement. You can express what some of us can’t and it helps!

  7. Michelle Peguero says:

    Thank you for expressing these real feelings with words. I hold onto to something you once said. “Some of our journeys will be a little longer.”

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