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Leveraging Setback into Success

I began writing a weekly blog for Crain’s Chicago Business about a month ago on women in entrepreneurship. My latest piece is about the owner of a Chicago candy store who found sweet inspiration from a career setback. The luxurious smells of homemade caramel enveloped me as I interviewed her (I’m hungry just thinking back on it), but what really caught my attention was her attitude. Amy Hansen is remarkably adept at spotting an opportunity where others might see an obstacle. How’s that for good enough?

So today I’m wondering: When have YOU been confronted with an obstacle but chosen to see an opportunity?

How Do You Know When You’re Successful?

 By Meryl Neiman

I was born the youngest of three girls in a family that strongly valued education and academic success. Fortunately for me, I entered this world smart with a good memory (no longer there, but that’s a post for another day) and an instinct for excelling at standardized tests.

School came easy to me, and the SATs were right up my alley, so my parents were thrilled when I was accepted to Brown. Of course, I was thrilled too. Brown was an Ivy League school with no course requirements and the option to take any class pass/fail. But at an even deeper level, I knew that I had succeeded. I did well in high school and now I had been admitted to a top tier college. The validation of my performance was clear and unequivocal. My parents could brag to their friends and I could attend the school of my dreams.

At college, my “success” continued. I did well without working too hard and received a merit scholarship to attend Duke Law School, one of the fifteen or so law schools that comprised the top ten. At Duke, I made it onto Law Review and graduated with honors before clerking for a federal judge, a prestigious (if low paying) position. I got married to my college sweetheart, who graduated from Duke’s medical school, and together we went to Pittsburgh to begin our respective careers.


Here’s where things became muddied. The other top students from my law school class were joining high-­‐powered firms in New York, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. or signing up to save the world (or at least some part of it) at well-­‐respected non-­‐profits. And I? I was in Pittsburgh, home of the Steelers and oversized salads topped with French fries.

Was I still successful? Sure. I didn’t want to be in New York City or New Haven, locations of other top residency programs in my husband’s specialty. A law firm is a law firm and I was at the most prestigious one in town. They paid well. We could always leave Pittsburgh after residency if we chose. Right? Right?

Fast forward ten years. We’re still in Pittsburgh. My husband segued from his residency into an academic fellowship and then one grant followed another. His research tethered him to Pittsburgh. And me? I loved Pittsburgh. There’s no better place to raise a family. And my husband’s sisters and parents were all in Pittsburgh. So what if I wasn’t working on the most interesting cases? They were big cases, worth lots of money, and important to the firm. I was still successful, right? Right?

Fast forward another ten years. Yep, we’re still in Pittsburgh. My husband is one of the leading experts on bipolar disorder in children and adolescents. He’s been quoted in the country’s leading newspapers and interviewed on national television. And me? Well, I didn’t want to be working sixty hours a week, jealous of some nanny who spent more time with my kids than I did. So I tried working part-­‐time at the firm, but it just wasn’t a good fit. You can’t manage cases and take them to trial if you’re committed to being able to get your kids from daycare by 6 PM.

So I quit and tried my hand at writing. I always loved reading and writing, I was an English major after all, and I had this great idea for a legal thriller. I could be the next Grisham. How’d that go, you might ask? The good news is that I actually finished a novel. I taught myself the craft of novel writing (once I realized that there was a craft and I really should know it) and I wrote a decent legal thriller. The even better news was that I landed one of the top literary agents in New York City. But the bad news? The bad news was that the book didn’t sell. My line to friends and family was that I was rejected at the very highest levels of New York publishing. I knew that just completing a novel was in itself a hugely significant accomplishment (most people who start never finish) and getting an agent, let alone a really good one, was yet another huge accomplishment. I also knew that selling your first novel was about as likely as winning the lottery, but all that knowledge didn’t lessen the blow. I had failed.

And now what was I to tell people when they asked what I did? What was I now? Was I a stay at home? Was I a failed fiction writer? Was I a struggling fiction writer because I did continue to write, although with much less enthusiasm, after my ultimate rejection? What was I? And was I successful?

A few weeks ago, my oldest friend in the world and I launched an online business. I had always wanted to own my own business but never had the guts to give it a go. But when Lisa told me about her idea for a website where parents could go to schedule playdates online, I thought it was genius. We make dinner reservations and book airfare online, why couldn’t we arrange our child’s social calendar as quickly and easily? But even beyond the greatness of the idea lay the possibility of career redemption. So maybe I wasn’t general counsel for the Washington Post or owner of my own named law firm or a professor at a top law school (like some of my former law school classmates), but I could start a company. A company that could make the lives of busy parents easier and possibly even make me some money.

So how’s PlaydatePlanet going? I don’t know. It’s too early to say. We’re getting hits on the website from all over the world. Feedback has been universally positive. And we haven’t yet started a marketing campaign to drive traffic to the site. It could be the next Facebook. Or it could crash and burn. And then what?

What defines success? My husband says it comes from within. That I shouldn’t need external validation to feel good about myself. When I share how anxious I am about being a failure again, he gently suggests therapy. But when you’ve spent your whole life receiving someone else’s validation for doing well, it is really hard to give it up cold turkey. My children don’t stop and tell me, “wow, that was a good parenting moment, right there.” They don’t compliment me on my steadfast driving ability that carries them to and fro their various activities. We never really know how we’re doing as parents, do we?

So, what do you think defines success? How do you know whether you are achieving it? Should I be able to feel good about myself and my work without any tangible sign of success? Do I need therapy???? Chime in!

[Oh, and if you want to help my self-­‐image, and if you have a playdate-­‐aged child, sign up at PlaydatePlanet and spread the word. It would save me the money from therapy.]

Meryl Neiman is a recovering attorney and co-­‐President of PlaydatePlanet, a social networking site where parents can post and accept playdates for their children online. Meryl blogs regularly about parenting and related issues at PlaydatePlanet’s TimeOutRoomBlog. You can also follow her on Twitter  @playdateplanet and subscribe to her posts on Facebook.

The Accidental Activist

Today I am delighted to share the story of how a Chicago mom built a charity — sort of by accident — simply because she couldn’t bear that so many children endure Chicago’s brutal winters without a warm coat, hat or gloves. Read her story, and please share it, no matter where you live. I hope it will inspire others as much as it inspired me. Which brings me to my DISCLOSURE: I am helping Coat Angels build a presence on Twitter and Facebook. When I met with Micki recently to discuss this piece, I was so blown away by her dedication and kindness that I wanted in, right then. — Becky

By Micki LeSueur

It wasn’t my intention to start a charity. To scramble for donations and figure out how to host fund raisers. To spend frigid winter days in neighborhoods no one should have to live in — especially not children.

But when you stumble across a need — a desperate need — and realize you have the ability to fix it, how do you walk away?

Micki and a coat recipient

The holiday season of 2006, I was considering my gift list for family and friends. While no one in my immediate circle is a Buffet or a Gates, everyone has her basic needs met. Though very fortunate, it makes for tough shopping; what can I afford to buy for them that they couldn’t buy for themselves? As much thought as I would put into it, how meaningful could a new Pottery Barn serving platter or coffee table book really be? So I talked to family and friends and we decided that instead of buying each other more stuff, we would pool our resources to provide for a family in need.

I asked a friend who teaches underprivileged students to find us a family we could sponsor for the holidays.  She asked if, instead, we could buy coats for her fifth-grade students; many were coming to school in single-digit temperatures wearing only sweatshirts and windbreakers.

So that year, through family and friends, we were able to buy coats for every child in need in the fifth-grade class at the Gallistel Academy on Chicago’s Far East Side. We shopped sales and managed to get each student in need a coat, fleece, hat and gloves. We personally delivered them and individually fit each child. A few coats didn’t fit, so we shopped again and returned the following day with ones that did. And the kids’ reaction was nothing short of heartwarming and heartbreaking.

[Read more...]

Re-Defining Success After Experiencing Failure

By Beth Belch Gross

I’ve recently had the most difficult and exciting year of my life. I graduated from law school, I took the bar exam, I couldn’t find a legal job and then I found out I failed the bar. Life was over. I was a failure.

In the meantime my fiancé, Jason, was finishing up his PhD in Aerospace Engineering and we were planning a wedding that was scheduled for six months later. Because we were paying for the majority of our wedding ourselves, I needed to find a job. So not only did I feel like I had personally failed, but now my failure was going to set back our wedding plans.


With each day that passed, the more miserable I became. I literally loathed myself. Finally, I found work and things got a little better. But I still had one thing looming over my head — the BAR. I still needed to pass that bar exam, if not for my career, for myself. I decided I would take it the next time it was offered and just try to do my best.

When I took the bar the second time, Jason was interviewing for a job at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, CA. Jason got the job offer. At the time, I didn’t care where we moved.  I was ready for anything that meant moving away from my failure. Weeks later, I got a letter from the West Virginia Bar Examiners… I had passed! Great. I passed the bar and now I’d be moving across the country and have to do this whole thing over again to be able to practice law.

It took many nights of long talks, but I came to the realization that his success, his dream job, could be my success, too. Now I’m jobless in Pasadena, miles and miles away from my hometown, my parents, my friends, and where I’m licensed to be a lawyer.

So how could Jason’s success become mine, too? What am I getting out of moving across the country?  I’m experiencing something I only dreamed about … I live 10 miles from one of the biggest cities in America. There are people, things, and culture here that I never knew existed. I have the opportunity here to apply for non-profits and public interest legal jobs that I can really be passionate about. Or who knows — maybe I will even be able to find a job in entertainment law!

It’s not the typical law student path. Although it’s hard for me to be so far away from everything I love, there are a few things I love here …  Jason, of course, and the opportunity to be passionate about my work. And if I find a job that I love, no one could call my journey anything but a success.

Beth Belch Gross recently landed a job as a document review attorney. She is trying to navigate life as a newlywed in the City of Angels.

Over the (New) Moon: Girl Power and My Daughter’s Great News

My daughter got her first journalism job this week. Which means, at just 9 years old, she’s a fourth-generation member of the family profession. I didn’t start stringing for my local weekly until I was 15. So, I need to warn you: I’m going to be an insufferably braggy mom here for a minute.

But bear with me: This is really a post about girl power and a truly inspiring social network and magazine called New Moon Girls. I swear that my main point isn’t to tell you that B is awesome. That said, she is — and I feel compelled to say it because she was born with a host of challenges that sometimes make life difficult. Things have been particularly tough for her the past few months, though I’ll refrain from saying more since it’s her story to tell, not mine. But suffice it to say that we’ve been struggling — really struggling some days — to help her remember how many beautiful gifts she has to share. [Read more...]

Why I Like the Tiger Mother (And Think She’s Lazy)

Let’s start here: I am totally fascinated by Amy Chua.

No matter how horrified I might have been by her list of things she refused to allow for her daughters (sleepovers, school plays, any grade less than an A), my first response was intrigue. Other moms I know read the excerpt of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother in the Wall Street Journal and were instantly appalled. Not me; I was too busy wondering how she got her daughters to practice music for that many hours everyday. And then I was busy envisioning what life must be like in the Chua-Rubenfeld house. Is it pristine and quiet? Do they yell? Make messes? Crack jokes?

[Read more...]