The Five Smartest Mistakes I Ever Made

There something I’d like to know about almost anyone I meet. Unfortunately I can’t ever ask, because the question is too personal.It is, “What were the biggest mistakes you ever made that not only turned out well, but that made you who you are today?”

You see — I have this theory that we are shaped for the better not by all our “smart” choices, but by the way we deal with all our “dumb” ones.

Take me, for example.

HERE ARE THE FIVE BEST MISTAKES I EVER MADE

1.) I blew off college.

I graduated 9th in my class in high school, had taken all college prep courses, my guidance counsellor let me know that I could get scholarships and loans that would pay for the whole thing (because there was no way my parents could have afforded it). But I said “no.” Didn’t apply for a single scholarship, didn’t even explore the college option. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but four more years of school, minimum, as a way of figuring it out didn’t appeal to me. So, against the advice of damn near everyone, I looked into jobs instead, and spent a year bouncing from one poorly-paid job to the next, and I got a feel for what life was like. It was good for me. It demonstrated to me that, in the real world, grades were meaningless, and results were everything.

2.) I entered a career field that didn’t interest me.

After a year of exploring the world of minimum-wage employment, and with my parents getting increasingly edgy about the possibility of my ever leaving home, I followed up a random suggestion from my mother and set up an appointment to talk to the dean of a local two-year nursing school. Please realize, I had no genuine interest in being a nurse. I was 19, for most of my life people whose opinions mattered to me had been praising me for my intelligence and my talent, boys leaned out of cars and whistled when I was walking on sidewalks, and I was pretty sure the world revolved around me. I knew two things about nursing: One, it paid enough that a single woman could exist on her own on the check. Two: I’d look cute in the uniform.

I took the entrance exam (hadn’t bothered with SATs because I knew I wasn’t going to college, remember), and the guidance counsellor informed me that, with my score, I could get a scholarship to a university. Vetoed that idea again, jumped a long waiting list to make it into the next Associate Degree nursing class.

And was immediately confronted by an entire mountain of life’s harsh realities. I met decubitus ulcers, gangrene, heart disease, COPD, amputation, cancer, birth defects, end-stage alcoholism, trauma, bereavement, and the list goes on and on.

I discovered that, not only did the universe NOT revolve around me, but that I was, in the grand scheme of things, worthless. I didn’t know anything useful, I couldn’t make anyone better, and everyone around me mattered more than I did. I was at the bottom rung of the evolutionary ladder, and climbing it was going to take more grief and perseverance than I though I had in me to bear.

But I persevered. I discovered that I could matter. I found myself a part of something bigger than me. I learned that life isn’t what we get, but what we give. I pushed myself hard to excel at this thing I’d never wanted, because suddenly I did want it. I wanted to matter. Eventually, I did. People lived because of me. People lived better because of me. Because of me, people who couldn’t be saved sometimes bought enough time to say goodbye to those they loved, sometimes knew that they weren’t alone.

3. I didn’t pursue promotion.

I took courses that would let me be a better staff nurse. Staff nursing in a hospital setting, with its frequent emergencies, its life-and-death immediacy, its demand that the nurse be right the first time, every time, was the only sort of nursing that appealed to me. I loved the ER. I liked ICU. I was willing to do my best anywhere else that I ended up. So long as I was dealing with “the healthcare consumer” (what I still think of as the patient), I was okay.

I was shit-awful at dealing with bureaucracy, because I kept insisting that people actually do their jobs, or at least not get in my way while I did mine.

I wrote up a dumb-ass nursing supervisor who, while we were in the middle of a cardiac code (you know, CPR, IVs, lidocaine and EKG monitors and intubation and “someone is dying here, bitch”), got in my face about why we were out of warm blankets in our blanket warmer. In her write-up, I used the word “incompetent.” I was right — she was incompetent — but it was, shall we say, politically unwise of me to put that thought in writing. The director of nursing called me on the carpet, chewed me out, told me I was on probation. Hated me forever after, and I worked there on and off for years.

Different hospital: I was working Baylor. A young mother with a great husband and a two-year-old son was dying of breast cancer. She’d been there almost a week, but I inherited her from the weekday staff, and discovered that her transfusions were to be stopped that day — she was going to go to sleep and simply never wake up. Never knowingly hug her kid for the last time, never tell her husband whatever last things she might have had to say to him, never say goodbye to her parents, or even her friends. Because, you see, her family didn’t want her to know she was dying.

A whole week, and nobody had done anything. My first order was to discontinue her blood transfusions.

Instead, I convinced her doctor that he had to tell her. That she had to know so that she could determine how she wanted to die. When she found out, she was devastated, and her family was furious with the doctor for going against their wishes. But she did have something she wanted to do. She wanted to go home (she lived in another country, and had been in the US on vacation.) So I called friends, I called airlines who might be able to tell me how we could get her home, I raised money among the nurses on the floor, I raised holy hell with the supervisors, who had word from the director of nursing that I had better knock it off — that the hospital didn’t want to be held liable for any transportation bills she might incur in being transported back home.

I was threatened with firing — and this was a big deal, because I was divorced with two kids, no child support or alimony, and bills, and getting fired from a nursing job makes it a hell of a lot harder to get another one. But I kept on raising hell. It was a very busy day. The next day I kept going, and her family, now thoroughly involved in getting her home and making sure she had as much time as she could to live out her last wishes, let me know that their friends in church and at the hospital where she’d worked (she was also an RN) and others were coming together magnificently. Money had been raised, a flight scheduled, the family wouldn’t have to pay a dime. Neither would the fucking corporate bean-counters in the hospital.

I wasn’t there when she left — that was on Monday. I was there the next weekend, though, to take the call from overseas. Her mother told me that she had just died, surrounded by her friends, with her husband and little boy and parents with her; that she hadn’t taken a single dose of pain medicine, that she’d kept fighting right up until the last to be with the people that she’d loved. That she’d had the time she needed to say goodbye to everyone.

That was a couple of days in my life as a nurse. I was an RN for ten years. I have a lot of stories like that, but the only reason I have them — instead of the story of how I threatened some RN with firing because she wouldn’t let a patient die when everyone but the patient had agreed it would be the most convenient and easiest alternative — is because I stayed a staff nurse, because I stayed hands-on, because I never pursued the lure of better money and more prestige. I lived thin, but I knew what I was doing mattered. I could see it every day.

4.) I had kids too young.

Most young women hear, “Don’t be in a hurry to get married. Wait a while before you have kids. Have the money in place, have the career well-established.” I heard that shit too.

I ignored that advice. I married at barely twenty-one, and had a daughter by the time I was twenty-two, almost twenty-three, and a son at twenty-four. I regret the hell out of the husband — he was a closet homosexual, a pedophile, and now he’s a convicted felon for what he did to my kids. But I have never regretted the kids, and I have always been grateful that I had an easy time getting pregnant with them, if not the easiest time staying pregnant. I didn’t find out until much later that women basically have until they’re twenty-seven to conceive easily. From twenty-eight to about thirty-five, the odds of getting pregnant at all drop hugely, while the chances of having a kid with birth defects increase astronomically. Beyond thirty-five, you’re into the realm of miracles.

But because I knew from the time I was a kid that I wanted to have kids of my own, I followed my gut instinct and in spite of massive amounts of advice to the contrary, I had them. Early. Having kids was my number-one priority — more than a career, more than fame, more than any artistic aspirations I might have had. The kids and I spent a lot of time being broke, a lot of time scraping by. But I have forever been grateful that I ignored the advice of people who knew “better,” because if I’d listened to them, I might never have had kids at all. And they were the right priority for me.

5.) I quit nursing too soon, and I quit for good, to pursue an insane job.

I wasn’t living off my royalties when I quit nursing to be a writer. I was barely living off of advances. I was supporting my family alone, with no side income from alimony or child support, and I decided to go full-time as a writer, walking away from the “everyone needs nurses” sure thing of being an RN, which was financially the craziest decision anyone could make. No sane person leaves a job where you work two days and get paid for a full week (Baylor) to hang by her fingernails and wait for publishers to pay what they owe on their whim. Everyone said, “Keep the weekend job, write duing the week.”

The stress of living off my writing has at times been horrendous, but because I put the nursing license on mothballs, I couldn’t easily go back. As time passed, I couldn’t go back at all. So I HAD to succeed as a writer — I couldn’t quit.

There were times when I wanted to quit. Of course there were. Some of them have even been recently.

Instead of quitting, each time I’ve been shoved up against the edge of a cliff, I’ve jumped, and found a new ledge, a new path to start climbing. I’ve followed my heart, taken chances on odd projects, pushed myself in new directions. Kept the faith, that this thing I fell into because it was something I could do while the kids were napping (no, I’d never planned to be a writer, either), was the right thing for me to be doing. Kept the faith that I could matter at this, that I could do something good, write books that offered more than just the surface story. That I could matter — if not in the same way that I mattered when I was a nurse, then somehow.

Because I jumped, I was there for my kids. Home when they came home from school, there to pick them up when they were sick or hurt, there to do fun things with them, to tell them it was okay with me if they blew off homework for a night so that we could watch movies. There to let them homeschool when we discovered this was a possibility. I’m there now.

Because I jumped, I’ve met a world of people I never would have met had I been able to quit when things got ugly. Because there were times in my writing career where, if I’d had an easy way out, I would have taken it. Where if I’d even had a hard but doable way out, I’d have taken it, just because I was walking in a black tunnel on railroad tracks, and I knew damn well the light I could see ahead of me was another train.

I’ve written some books I’m proud of. I’ve put together some things that are helping other writers — this site, the FM community.

I wouldn’t have done any of these things had I stuck with the safe path of nursing on the weekends and writing during the week. The Baylor jobs are all gone now, I would have ended up working weekdays, or nights, or other shift work, or I might have pursued a management position and become someone I’d hate.

Instead, I am the product of every mistake I’ve ever survived, and better for having made these five mistakes.

So. For those of you who have weblogs — what are the five best mistakes you’ve ever made? Post a link to your mistakes in the comments below, if you’d like. If you don’t have a webloge, you’re welcome to post your five best mistakes here.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

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