Jessica Beder on John Oliver and the Blessings of Failure

Noodle Expert Jessica Beder shares what she could learn from John Oliver and how failure offers blessings.

Noodle Expert Jessica Beder shares what she could learn from John Oliver and how failure offers blessings.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

This may be a strange answer, but I would choose John Oliver because I think humor is one of the most important tools for growth, learning, happiness, and engagement.

On his show "Last Week Tonight," he takes critical current, national, and international issues and dissects them using shameless comedy routines. The topics he contends with are meaty, complex, and volatile. He not only discusses delicate subjects with tact and flair, but he also makes important facts accessible and relatable — in a way that makes people stop what they’re doing and really listen.

News, politics, current events, and the general happenings of the world are areas that every person should be hooked into. An awareness of the global structures, events, and agendas that uphold the frameworks we live within is critical to an understanding of our careers, our lives, our families, and ourselves.

If John Oliver could be my teacher for a year, I would hope to learn how to use charisma, humor, and creativity to give other people a sense of global awareness and a more honest, intelligent pictorial of the world.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

A wise person once told me that luck is when opportunities present themselves and you’re ready to take them. After I heard this, nothing was ever the same for me because I realized that determining the outcome of things is ultimately in my control — and that’s a powerful thought.

I think this is the most realistic view of life we can have. It explains why some people seem to have it all figured out, while others repeat the same mistakes over and over again. You’re not unlucky; the common denominator in multiple failures is, unfortunately, you. It’s all about what you choose or choose not to take away from a good crash and burn.

The lesson here is, number one, don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is a blessing, not a curse. What many people don’t realize is that the times when we fall short of expectations and struggle the most are our greatest opportunities for growth. Likewise, these situations set us up for greater appreciation of the rewards when we make the grade. Without the bitter, the sweet just isn’t as sweet.

The second lesson of this quote is to make a commitment to the curious life. Cast off the shackles of un-actualized intent and live for today! Because life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Don’t waste time waiting for opportunities to materialize based on a regimented, pre-set life agenda because you will miss out on hundreds of equally, if not more, beautiful opportunities flying around you every moment.

This lesson is for the winner and the loser, the adventurer and the pragmatist, the silly-heart and the broken-heart. More likely than not, we are all of these things at one time or another — so remember this and don't let dashed dreams define who you are.

Where would you send a student who hasn’t traveled before?

The first travel experience I had was on an exchange program in London through my university. Following my own success, I would recommend any collegiate study abroad program as the perfect platform for a first-time traveler to launch from.

These programs are set up to make the adjustment period as comfortable as possible, and the organizers are skilled in assisting hundreds of students in making the same transition. They’re run by experienced advisors (often veteran travelers themselves) who have helped students deal with just about anything that could ever need to be dealt with. It’s the training-wheels step to real, independent, adult travel. According to an article by the BBC reporting on an Erasmus study, 40 percent of exchange students go on to live and work abroad later in life.

In terms of location, I think diving into the deep end is the best approach, and that’s why I would recommend choosing a spot where your native language isn't spoken. It will be challenging but equally rewarding. Being pushed outside your cultural comfort zone changes you and inspires you more than you ever thought possible.

Be forewarned — this feeling is addicting. Best of all, after living in a place where another language is spoken, navigating the London underground system or reading the city maps in Australia will seem like a piece of cake. It’s a crash-course in life, "How to Take Care of Yourself 101." You become a stronger person, learning to take things in stride and not melting down when life gives you a tough moment.

Most important of all, learning another language by living abroad feeds both your soul and your passion for linguistic academia. You pick up local slang, perfect your accent, and begin to understand the histories of the people around you as though you’ve cracked a secret code. Best of all, you learn 10 times faster. I studied French for five years in school and can barely say a single word today. Following six months living in Argentina with no prior study, I can already speak well enough to hold professional interviews in Spanish. Now, that’s inspiring.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

When I was growing up, I had a very hard time with math. I am not sure why this subject was such a black hole for me, but, for some reason, no matter how hard I studied or what strategies I tried, I always performed poorly.

I felt like I was unintelligent and didn’t understand how it could be so easy and simple for everyone else. It just felt inaccessible, and I dreaded that part of the school day. It was as if there was a locked door to all the right answers and I would never have the key. I’d love to be able to say that there was some grand, romantic moment when everything changed and became clear — but the truth is, math remained, and still remains, a challenge for me. I learned instead that sometimes in life you just have to accept that things won't be easy; arm yourself with a tool belt of tricks, harness all your positive energy, and just try your best. We are all great at some things and not at others. Accepting this and not taking it personally are part of life.

Over the years, I had good math teachers, bad math teachers, math teachers who made me laugh and smile, and math teachers who made me cry. Looking back, the ones I had the most success with were not the kindest, but they were the ones who made the subject interesting to me. They took the time to reach deep into the Narnia-circus of my brain and find ways to make the subject relatable. This allowed me to break outside of the box of shame I had created to compartmentalize math away from the other areas of my life.

If I could go back and speak to my younger self, the one thing I would say is, "Don’t carry this failure around as a burden." It’s 100 percent normal to fail at things, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Learn from it, and be grateful for the lesson. As humans we are both imperfect and incredibly adaptable. The two must be appreciated in tandem if we are to get anywhere in life.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

In my experience, there are two kinds of people — those who know what they want and those who don’t. There are people who keep their options open and embrace the possibility of the unknown, and people who drown confusion in absolutes, seeking comfort in the security of long-term commitments. Regardless of which one you are, the truth is, from the CEOs down to the interns, nobody really has it all figured out.

When you’re younger, there tends to be this thought-process of “When I reach this point, that's when I’ll have it all together, that's when I’ll be a success." But the big secret is, you never reach this point! That is, unless you let yourself. This was the biggest career shock for me, and I still contend with it every day.

It’s so easy to just keep pushing the bar further ahead — “Once I get my degree. No, once I land my first job. No, once I earn that promotion.” This mentality leads to endless dissatisfaction and a super un-fun game of give-a-mouse-a-cookie. In this way, I am learning to recognize my skills and professional value right now.

Growing up, my career path was the slow-stitching of a patchwork design, sewn from a thousand experiential fragments. There was not a single moment where I sat up and thought, "Yes, I want to be in publishing. I know exactly how to do that." It was more like the evolutionary track of a drunken ferret, stumbling through a succession of serendipitous exploits. And it’s worked out wonderfully.

I chased the things that made me feel inspired and, by trial and error, learned to avoid the things that didn’t. I realize now that career, like life, is supposed to be dynamic — a concept my seven-year-old, or even seventeen-year-old self never would have dreamed of. If I had the chance to speak to these younger versions of myself, I would tell them that it’s okay not to know, not to have it all planned out. It’s in fact better.

Proactivism is the heart and soul of all professional exchanges. At the end of the day, we only get one shot at living, so follow the advice of Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

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