The most difficult aspect of losing my house to foreclosure and filing bankruptcy has been the overwhelming sense of failure that has come from those experiences. Even though I filed for bankruptcy nearly a dozen years ago, and I’ve recovered financially, the emotional damage of the experience is still with me. When I make financial decisions, I mull them over much more carefully than I did in the past. If it looks like money is going to be tight, I react immediately. My emotional reactions to money are very much colored by the fact that I realize it’s not that hard to fall into bankruptcy, and if I’m not very careful, it could happen again.
Bankruptcy is also a very isolating experience. People tend not to talk about money, especially when it comes to sharing financial difficulties. It’s easy to share good news about a raise, a promotion, or the new car; it’s a lot harder to admit that your spouse is out of work and you are having trouble paying your bills.
At the time I filed bankruptcy, I knew only one other person who had filed. He was a casual acquaintance I’d met in college, and I regarded him as being irresponsible, lazy, and somewhat dishonest. He’d run up debts that he knew he could not afford to pay, knowing full well he’d file for bankruptcy at some point in the future. Since I had no one in my peer group with whom I could compare myself, I felt like I had an invisible “L,” for loser, tattooed on my forehead.
Nobody could tell I’d filed bankruptcy by looking at me, so it became my big, dirty secret. I felt, and have continued to feel, very ashamed that it happened.
Although there were many reasons for my financial implosion, I’ve tended to blame the mistakes I made with my business more than any other. As I’ve looked back over the years, I’ve regarded my closed business as one of my biggest life’s failures. It was a business I loved, where I worked for people I truly enjoyed. In the end, I felt like I not only disappointed myself, but I disappointed my customers as well.
A couple of weeks ago, I received a very surprising e-mail. It was from one of my former customers, an old subscriber to my computer bulletin board system, who was contacting me to say hello. She filled me in on the last decade of her life, and then told me something that really knocked me over: she’d set up a group on a social networking site for others who used to subscribe to my service.
I was stunned. It seemed incredible to me that anyone would care enough to set up a group remembering something I’d started nearly two decades before. When I dropped in on the group, I found quite a few of my old customers, remembering the fun they’d had playing games and networking on my old computer system, long before the days that the Internet was available in our community.
What seemed even more amazing was that something I regarded as the largest failure of my life was being celebrated and remembered so fondly by others. As I read the stories, remembering the people long gone, I was overwhelmed. I broke down at my computer and cried.
How could it be that my life’s most tragic failure has become many other people’s cherished memories? I expected to find people angry or disappointed that I’d taken away their fun when I had to close my business. Instead, I found people who were grateful for what I’d done. They shared stories of how their time playing on my computer system had inspired them to go into technical career fields. One woman explained how my business was directly responsible for her starting a family.
I was more than touched, and what I’ve realized is that perhaps my business wasn’t such a failure after all. Even though the business didn’t survive and it was a colossal monetary disaster, it had its season, and it made a profound impact on a large number of people.
Lesson learned: Sometimes, even failures can be successes when they positively affect the lives of others.
Next in Series: Diversifying to Avoid Disaster
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