Posted by: joha5 | May 21, 2010

The Righteous Path: Learning about Success, Failure, and Ambition

Maybe it is because I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., maybe it is because I have had access growing up to some of the most powerful and influential people in the United States, or maybe it is just because I am fascinated by people and culture – whatever it is – I absolutely love politics.  

It has honestly been a lifelong passion for me.  I recall going out every morning to pick up The Washington Post that we had delivered to our house everyday and just ingesting as much information as I possibly could over breakfast before I would be dragged to school.  To me, there was just something about participating and learning about the wider world that I found absolutely fascinating.  News, politics, art, film, culture, music, business – I could go on – grabbed me by the throat at an early age and I haven’t looked back since.   

Knowing this, you can just imagine how excited I was this week when I found out that Senator Mark Warner (D – VA) was going to be speaking at the school that I teach at first thing on Friday morning.  What’s more is that one of my very close friend’s from high school actually works for him as his assistant and essentially runs and manages his whole office.  A reunion, a speech, and I was getting paid for all of this?  Everything was coming up Jon!   

Senator Mark Warner (D - VA)


I met my friend outside of the school’s auditorium and we had a very quick reunion and chat about life, work, and everything that had been going on since we last saw each other.  We kept it very brief because she was on a tight schedule and we figured that we had plenty of time for catching up over drinks this coming weekend so we didn’t feel that we were under an immense amount of pressure for time.  We went in, took our seats, and Senator Warner began his speech. 

I don’t know how familiar any of you are with Senator Warner but I won’t waste your time detailing his career or merits here (that’s what Wikipedia is for).  His speech focused around the theme of failure – something that I feel very personally connected to these days as I struggle to find permanent employment.  He detailed his progress from high school to college to post-graduate degrees and then his entry into the political realm.  He told us how he worried about paying for his student loans and how he had failed at a handful of business ventures.  Yet rather than focus on his success and how they led to greater subsequent successes, he focused on the power of failure and what that meant to him in his career.  His advice?  Never be afraid to fail.  I like that. 

Inspiring as it may have been – and it was – there was more to his message than just saying ‘it’s okay to fail’.  This was a U.S. Senator who has an extremely ambitious past: Founder of Nextel, Harvard Law School graduate, Governor of Virginia, a wife and 3 kids, and fairly obvious ambitions to run for ‘national office’ (re: President) some day not too far in the distant future.  After a discussion with a very intelligent and observant colleague of mine, I realized that he was saying ‘it’s okay to be ambitious and fail – but never stop being ambitious.’  Even though the focus is still on failure, it is actually an intrinsically different message.  

Is it okay to fail over and over again if you are ambitious?


Don’t get me wrong.  I was still very inspired by his speech and what he had to say.  Seeing somebody at the pinnacle of their career is just what the doctor ordered at this point in my life.  It inspires me to keep pushing for what I want and for what I believe in and not to settle for anything less.  I may be self-conscious about some of my failure’s but I certainly am not afraid to embrace them and learn from them as I move forward.  The tricky part is trying to remain ambitious during the period following a failure.  This is one of the things that makes unemployment so difficult.  I entered it voluntarily because I was so confident in my approach, in my future, and in what I was capable of achieving.  Things have clearly not worked out as I had hoped and anticipated.  But that’s okay.  I have learned an incredible amount about myself during this period and I have been tested in ways that I never thought possible.  My biggest daily struggle by far is to remain ambitious and to remain confident.  

Gathering from what he said during his speech, Senator Warner had achieved a lot more tangible success by the age of 28 than I have.  He graduated at the head of his college class at George Washington University, he had started a couple of businesses, and he had graduated from Harvard Law School.  Honestly, good for him.  I am aware that I can never be like that.  I am also aware that I would never want to be either.  I have definitely paved a path of success so far in my life – or what I deem to be a success.  I have stumbled over obstacles along the way but I have never failed to get back up and continue confidently down the path that I have chosen.  Maybe I will be a Senator one day and maybe I won’t be.  One of the things that Senator Warner failed to mention is that there is not one linear path in life towards a destination.  He may have failed in business a couple of times but there is no doubt that his ambition set him on a path to success in the field that he was meant to end up in.  I bet 30 years ago after Senator Warner’s businesses failed that he had a very similar mindframe to what I have at this very point in my life.  But I also bet that he hardly remembers the details of it other than the fact that it was a turning point for him and his career. 

I guess what was so inspiring about his speech today was the fact that I can see myself now in a pivotal point in my life much like he was 30 years ago.  I’m not saying I want to be a Senator or that I will have nothing but success from now until the day I die.  Quite the contrary, actually.  Senator Warner reminded me that I am not a failure because of what I perceive to be a failure.  I’m not afraid to walk down the path that I have chosen and I was reminded earlier today just how unapologetic and proud of myself I should be. 

...The Road Ahead



  1. I too am trying to keep my head above water and remind myself of the circulatory path towards success. Great article you’ve written 🙂 thanks for sharing your insights.

    I can also relate to what you say about entering unemployment voluntarily (in my case I quit an abusive work environment) but with the economy this bad never expecting things to turn out the way they do.

    • Hey Shanti! I’m so sorry that you had to quit your last job because of an abusive work environment. I honestly cannot even imagine anything worse. Well, I could imagine leaving work and thinking you’ll find a job quickly and then not actually finding one (since this is what has happened to me!). Ha! You seem incredibly stoic and things will definitely work out for you sooner rather than later. I think you and I both know that you will be just fine. 🙂

  2. Defining your own measures of success is the key. It doesn’t matter that his success at your age won’t be yours.

    It’s exactly what you took from it… ambition and perseverance will keep your eyes on the “prize.”

    And the old adage, “That which is acquired too cheaply, is valued too little.”

    Cheers to another great post!

    • Hey Susan! Welcome back to the blog! I definitely got what I needed from the speech and I also got a lot from that quote you just said about that which is acquired too cheaply will be valued too little. This is genuinely how I feel about finding work. I could easily – well, not easily but you know what I mean! – find a job that wouldn’t do me any good in the long run. I appreciate you sharing that because it makes me feel like I am definitely doing the right thing by shooting for something that I know I could do & enjoy.

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