How the “Failures” Helped Me Find My Path

life path

illustration by Mari Andrew

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I think we all know at this point that I rarely have my entire life planned out. I make big elaborate future plans, and then spontaneously change them based on a combination of sporadic dreams and general enthusiasm. But for some reason, people tend to think my expat life was some sort of long-term plan I had for myself growing up. Honestly, if you had told me in high school that I’d be living in China long-term, I would’ve laughed in your face.

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I’m actually amazed when I think about all of the times my current life almost didn’t happen. My figurative “sliding doors” moments. The accidents and failures that pushed me towards this path. The people I almost didn’t meet. The jobs I didn’t get. The university that denied me. The sorority that rejected me. The boy who broke my heart.

So today I thought it might be fun to tell you a series of mini-failures and disappointments that landed me where I am today.

Holy Names Academy

A few months before heading to GW!

1. Rejected From Brown University

I was a pretty intense child growing up. I put a lot of pressure on myself to excel. I got good grades, I worked really hard, I took the ACT four times, and according to my mom, I was the “Queen of Extracurriculars.” Where do people like that go to college? They aim for the Ivy Leagues, of course.

I fell in love with Brown while participating in its high school summer program, and applying Early Decision* was a no-brainer. However, when I visited Brown with my mom a few months later, the university was different than I remembered. I loved the school, but something felt off. I didn’t feel like I fit in.

*For those of you who aren’t from the US, “Early Decision” is a binding contract. If you’re accepted to the university you have to go there. 

UNNC graduation

Getting my MA at the University of Nottingham

When Brown rejected me, I was actually relieved. I ended up at  the George Washington University instead, and it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Why is it so important that I went to GW? Well, to be honest, I feel like I would be a completely different person without that school. I wouldn’t have the same interest in domestic and international politics. I probably wouldn’t have studied abroad in China, and I wouldn’t have met the same people who shaped and molded me into the woman I am today.

I think attending GW was the first step that set me on my current path, and put everything in place for my life today.

Chinese period taboos

Hanging out with my Chinese friend in Tianjin

2. The Arabic Class Was Full

I can imagine all of your jaws hitting the floor. That’s right. I didn’t always want to study Chinese.

Surprise! In addition to China, I was also obsessed with Egypt. Growing up, I used to imagine what it would be like to live in ancient Egypt, and whenever I had a choice, Egypt, the Pyramids, and mummies were at the top of my list for all school presentations. I even convinced my family to go to Egypt when I was in high school!

At GW I needed to take three years of a language, so of course, it was natural that I would take Arabic. I’d study abroad in Egypt and eventually get a job with the US government… or something. I was going to be really important someday!

But when the day came to register for classes, all of the Arabic courses filled up before I could even click the button to register. Cue a massive freak-out and a panicked call to the registration department. They assured me that it would be perfectly fine to start my language courses in the second year of college, and if I really wanted to minor in Arabic and get started right away, they would find a way to fit me in.

Long story short, I ended up not taking Arabic my Freshman year of college, and in that brief year I did a complete 180 and registered for Chinese instead!

Asia Outdoors

Rock climbing with my sorority sisters in Vietnam!

3. Denied From My Dream Sorority

Before coming to GW, I knew I wanted to be an ADPi. The incredibly nice girl I met on my tour of GW was from that sorority, along with most of the leaders of the GW pre-college outdoor adventure trip I participated in. I went into recruitment with an open mind, but my heart knew which sorority I belonged in.

That was… until they didn’t ask me back.

Of course, I was devastated. Can you imagine having a whole room of people indirectly tell you that they had a quick vote and you’re not cool enough to be their friend?!

Thankfully, I decided to stay in recruitment and eventually became a member of Pi Beta Phi. Just like Brown University, I now know that this was definitely the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I’m still incredibly close with my sorority “family” as you can see by the fact that I visited Vietnam with my little sister and grand-little this March!

Why is Pi Phi important? It was my grand-big sister who convinced me to study Chinese instead of Arabic and my big sister that prevented me from making the biggest mistake ever (more on that next).

Hong Kong ferry

Traveling solo in Hong Kong!

4. My Boyfriend Dumped Me

I’m sure many of you have read the story about choosing travel over love. I came very, very close to studying abroad in Australia instead of China to be with my long-distance Australian boyfriend. Everyone was on board with the idea. I even had myself convinced! That was until my sorority big sister set me straight.

I can’t even begin to describe how much studying abroad changed me and my “life plan”. It was one of my study abroad friends who convinced me to move back to China after graduation. It was the head of my study abroad company’s China programs that told me he saw me working in international education and landed me an internship with the Study Abroad Foundation in Beijing. I even ended up interning for my study abroad company once I got back to DC!

Study abroad was my first taste of Asia. It was the first time I had traveled on my own. Before I set foot in Beijing, I couldn’t speak Chinese outside of the classroom. By the time I left, I was the one doing the translating for my study abroad group in Xi’an. Before I studied abroad, I was nervous about staying in a fancy hostel in Korea on my own. By the time I left I was backpacking rural Sichuan with a friend.

Oslob waterfall

Playing in waterfalls in the Philippines

It was studying abroad in China that encouraged me to start this blog and gave me the Asia-centered focus I’m known for today. It was my crappy little study abroad blog that made me fall in love with writing, and encouraged me to share my experiences.

Choosing China meant the end of my relationship, the only serious boyfriend I’ve ever had. It’s weird to look back now and wonder what my life might have been like had I spent that semester in Australia. My ex just bought a house and is fixing it up with his current long-term girlfriend.

But when I look at them and their life I’m not jealous. Their picture-perfect white picket fence dream couldn’t be further from what I want now.

It’s been almost five years since I’ve had a serious relationship, which is a little bit sad. But if you gave me the chance to go back in time and do things differently, I wouldn’t change my decision. Being perpetually single is a small price to pay for all of the adventures I’ve had.

Teach Abroad China

Halloween with my students!

5. My Teach Abroad Program Screwed Me

I think we all know that I’m a little less than satisfied with Ameson Year in China. For those of you who are new, I decided to teach abroad with a placement company, AYC, which promised us all jobs in Chinese public schools. We were paid a criminally low salary of 5,000 yuan ($800 USD) a month with free housing, a free TEFL, orientation, free Chinese classes and “excursions”.

We were also all supposed to be placed at schools together in various cities across China. Instead, AYC placed me at a high school in the middle of nowhere by myself. The best part? I had no idea until the day I arrived! (Also, the Mandarin lessons and excursions never actually happened.)

teach English China

My students at Wuxiang high school

The hardest part of living in the middle of nowhere was that I was extremely lonely. I had no one to talk to, all of my Chinese coworkers were married with kids, and the bus into the city stopped running at 7pm. After a few months, I got into the habit of talking out loud to myself. (Yes, I know I’m crazy.)

Aside from being lonely, I had so much free time that I felt useless. I spent my evenings cooking elaborate Chinese meals and watching Netflix. That was until the day I found Go Abroad’s Top Solo Female Travel Bloggers. I quickly became obsessed with Adventurous Kate, Twenty-Something Travel, and Legal Nomads and devoured hundreds of posts in a matter of days. 

While I never thought I’d try to make my blog a business, reading their blogs inspired me to transition Adventures Around Asia from a shitty study abroad blog into the awesome website it is today!

Chinese jumping photo

My study abroad days!

6. I Didn’t Land My Dream Job

My senior year of college I interned at my study abroad company, the Alliance for Global Education. I’m still a huge fan of that company, and if you’re considering studying abroad in China or India I definitely suggest you look into it!

Half-way through my miserable year teaching English in “Factoryville”, I decided it was time to find a new job. I couldn’t stay in China without the possibility of owing my school up to $8,000 for breach of contract (seriously, I was an idiot) so I needed to leave the country.

When a job popped up with the Alliance for Global Education I applied immediately. The position was a Program Advisor for all of the Alliance’s China programs. I would help answer questions about the programs,  decide which students would be admitted, and mentor students through the pre-departure process.

You've been in China too long

More study abroad amazingness

I was so sure they would hire me. I studied abroad on both their Beijing and Xi’an programs and interned with them for a year. My personality was perfect for the job, and I knew I’d be a great fit.

Well, long story short, I didn’t get hired for the job. I also applied to work as a China admissions rep for NYU Abu Dhabi and didn’t get that job either.

When I was rejected from both these positions I made the tough decision to stay in “Factoryville”. Once I decided to stay, everything turned around. I no longer felt tricked into a shitty situation. I chose to stay, knowing what I was in for, and because of that I was able to stop feeling sorry for myself and start enjoying my experience.

Years later I’m so thankful to the Alliance for not hiring me. If they did I’d still probably be in DC right now, working in an office. I’d own furniture and a cat. Maybe I’d have a boyfriend… Probably not. 

Seoul Cat cafe

At my favorite cat cafe in Seoul!

7. I Realized Too Late I Wanted to Work for Myself

After I was rejected from the Alliance and NYU Abu Dhabi, I virtually stalked their staff websites to see what I was missing. After detailed research and a lot of time on Google, I realized that if I wanted a career in International Education I’d need a Master’s Degree.

It wasn’t until half-way through my master’s that I realized maybe I don’t want a career in International Education after all… whoopsies.

Cue a quarter-life crisis and a meltdown over $20,000 USD in loans for a degree I didn’t even really want. 

Well, luckily I’m not a quitter. I finished my Master’s degree and focused on making my blog a business part-time. I purchased courses, studied other blogs, joined blogging Facebook groups, improved my social media presence, and re-designed my website.

Shuffle Crew

My Nottingham dance crew!

I’ll admit it wasn’t always easy. I visited a fellow blogger in Chiang Mai and struggled to conceal my envy. I even cried in my bunk my last night in the Philippines because I really didn’t want to move to Beijing. I felt trapped by my loans and just wanted to travel indefinitely, working from my laptop. The worst part is that I knew I could do it if I just irresponsibly ignored my debt.

#FirstWorldProblems.

Well, not only do I have a Master’s Degree (which makes me feel cool), these loans have forced me to stay in China, where I’ve developed more of a name for myself. I’ve been forced to mature and come up with a real business plan, rather than floundering around with no money. Besides, Beijing is awesome!

Advanced Diver Philippines

Casual afternoons in the Philippines

8. My Love Live is A Disaster

If you haven’t read my Huffington Post piece How Travel is Ruining My Love Life, you should probably go check it out.

While sometimes it can be hard to go so long without being in a serious relationship, I’m kind of glad I’m perpetually single. Being single has forced me to find value in myself, even if the men in my life can’t see it. I’ve become fiercely independent and strong. I do what’s best for me and my path, without making compromises for a relationship.

While I eventually want to be able to share my life with someone, I’m glad I was able to be selfish for the first half of my twenties.

TBEX Bangkok

Talented female bloggers at TBEX

9. My Blog Growth is Slow AF

While I’m immensely grateful for all of my blogger friends and the help they’ve given me, sometimes it can be frustrating to surround myself with people who are more successful than me. Not only does it  make me feel like an imposter, sometimes I feel like I’ll never catch up.

The worst are the friends whose careers have catapulted ahead of mine while I’m stuck at my day job. I’ve been working so hard for so long, it can be frustrating to see others become an overnight success. While I’m happy for them and try to use it to motivate myself to work harder, sometimes it can be rough.

But through all of this I’ve realized that to be successful, I’m going to have to put in the effort. All of my friends who have successful blogs have worked really, really hard. It’s not just about writing great content. You have to be business savvy. You need to network, establish credibility and create a brand.

A part of me is pretty glad my growth is slow. I’ve been able to find my footing and take my time working on the right brand and niche. I’d rather develop my business skills before I start getting a lot of traffic, instead of frantically trying to market myself retroactively.

Kermit surfing Siargao

Learning to surf in the Philippines

I’m Happy On My Random Path

Overall, I’m really happy where I’m at. All of these disappointments seemed like such a big deal at the time, but in retrospect, I wouldn’t change a thing. While these last three “failures” still sting a little bit, I know a few years from now I’ll be glad things worked out the way they did.

It’s crazy to look back and see how different my life might be if these “failures” didn’t happen. Would I be fixing up a house in Melbourne right now? Would I be sitting at a desk in Washington DC? Maybe I’d be working for the government putting my Arabic language skills to the test, or struggling to feed myself as a digital nomad in Chiang Mai.

Someday I’ll be 80 years old in a rocking chair, telling crazy stories to my grandkids. I’ll look back on my life with a smile, remembering all of these little “failures.” My life path may not be the most traditional, but at least my grandchildren will never think I was boring!

Do you feel the same way about your “failures?” In retrospect, what are the disappointing moments you’re glad happened? 

How my "failures" led to a life of travel!

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Comments

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About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

12 comments on “How the “Failures” Helped Me Find My Path

  1. cheers to the adventure, babe! love and can totally relate to this windy and reflective path — too many to even list here, but all of it brings us that much closer to where we’re meant to be :)

    xx christina
    currentlyexploring.com

    • Thanks Christina! I definitely agree. When I look back on all these “failures” (even the more current ones) I’m sure I’ll be so glad things ended up the way they did.

  2. This is an awesome article. just fit in to my situation as well. I feel frustrated recently asking myself why my blog is not growing as what I want it to grow.. though I’m thankful that it has its progress, yet, i’m not satisfied yet. Ops! we are on the same path on this. I’m super happy for you for having some articles posted to huffingpost, it’s that not that easy, and that for me is a good progress already

    • Thanks so much Ferna! I’m so glad you can relate. I think with goal-oriented people, it can be difficult to ever be satisfied. Especially with my blog, every time I reach a goal I always have my sights set on the next one!

  3. I feel the same way about some of my “failures”. If I had went to a different school, studied something else in undergrad, or not given up on being a doctor my life would be completely different. I do love my life right now but I sometimes wonder what it’d be like to be doing something different. One thing I will say though is that I rushed into being married (twice) and having kids (three). Enjoy your freedom, your travels and the opportunities you have right now. I know it sucks sometimes but if I had to do it again, I’d give myself more time to be selfish and by myself. Great post.

  4. This is such an important post, I’m glad you put yourself out there! I feel like those unexpected life failures are super necessary to keep us grounded and keep our ego’s in check. I’ve seen what those people who never seem to fail turn into and I definitely don’t want to be one of those people.

    Flexibility is such an important life skill and it sounds like you have mastered it.

    If your blog growth is slow, I might as well quit before I put any more effort in. lol. Your 6k followers on Twitter is badass! You’ve been in Huffington! You are doing great! Keep up the good work.

    • Hahaha wow thanks so much TJ! I think with me, I always compare myself to people who are ahead of me, which is a blessing and a curse. So my blog growth seems slow compared to people who are only blogging for a year or two and already have 20K followers! I totally agree with you about how failure is so important. If you don’t fail, how can you really appreciate your success?

  5. This is a great idea for a post. I think failure really does make us stronger, and I truly believe that all things happen for a reason (even if you can’t see that reason at the time). I love your blog and I follow your Snapchat every time I see your story – I skip through most of the others that I see. I love that your career and lifestyle are not too dissimilar to mine!

    • Thanks so much Brit! I loved watching you in India, it was so interesting! Personally, I love reading expat blogs and watching people who really know about the country they’re living in.

  6. Pingback: My Biggest Blogging Challenges - Adventures Around Asia

  7. Great post. We all individually experience many failures throughout life, its really brave of you to share some of yours on your blog. Love this topic & needed to read it as I make life-changing transitions in my life too :)

    • Thanks so much! I’m so glad you enjoyed this post. I definitely want to be honest about how my life isn’t always smooth sailing. Good luck with your big life transitions!!

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