“Failure is everywhere. It’s just that most of the time we’d rather avoid confronting that fact.”
– Oliver Burkeman
This week I had a job interview where I was asked if I had ever failed at anything. The interviewer had started the question on the default position that failure was alien to me. I had come across in such a confident manner that the question had appeared almost rhetorical.
“Of course!” I cried, “I’ve failed so many times!”
About a year and a half ago, I was obsessed with failure. I had failed miserably at trying to become a barrister in London and I was beginning to accept that I was a failure. I guess I had never really “failed” before. If I failed an exam at school, I would study hard to get my grades back up. When it came to my career, if I had my sights set on something, I would strategise, manoeuvre and pester until I got where I needed to go.
Except for when it came to becoming a practising barrister. For some reason, this was a goal that I had failed to achieve. I didn’t quite understand why the Universe was really not letting me become one. I was prime lawyer material: I had a CV littered with human rights work and academic accolades; I enjoyed public speaking and arguing. On one occasion I got close to the coveted prize, but I never quite hit the mark.
After trying for three years, I decided last year to say “f**k it” and give up. It was at that point I became obsessed with failure. “What does it actually mean to fail?” I asked myself, “And why can’t we admit our failures: in careers, in love, in life? Why can’t we be honest and open about failure?”
So I went on my quest. Albeit, I focussed on my failure to become a barrister. I contacted a journalist at the Guardian who wrote about legal education and I suggested to him that he write about those people like me who would never get the chance to be one. He proposed that I write it myself. So I rose to the challenge.
If I wanted to at least try to answer my questions, I would have to begin by publicly admitting my failure. My aim of the article was to dispel – no – thrash this myth that failure is bad and it’s a sin to admit it.
I couldn’t believe the fantastic feedback I received from the article. Words of comfort and wisdom from my fellow failures poured in. The article had liberated us.
I’ve learned so many things about failure. In brief, that it’s good to fail! Because if you’ve failed at something, at least you’ve given it a go. I do believe in trying hard at something and keeping at it, but the key to well-being is to know when to quit. I also see the cosmic value in talking about failure, because by admitting failure, it makes us human, it makes us interesting, and not least we get a few sympathy votes (but don’t milk it).
Since I’ve “failed” so many wonderful things have happened, one being the creation of this blog. I enjoyed writing my story so much that it gave me the confidence to write more and tap into my creative side. I became more honest about where my talents lay best and what I really wanted for my life.
And once I started delving more deeply into failure, I discovered some wonderful insights, such as some of the most iconic people of past and present having failed at something. Martin Luther King scored below average on his test scores, Abraham Lincoln suffered many failures, Colonel Saunders had a thousand rejections before he got a partner to go into business with him. Failure was common among these success stories too.
Yet, for every failure-success story, there are probably more failure-failure stories (visit the Museum of Failed Products for example) and that is nothing to be ashamed of or scared about. It is just a fact of life. Or one of probability: the more things we try, the higher the likelihood that we will fail at them (certainly at the beginning). But once we start realising that failure is part and parcel of life, perhaps then we will stop fearing it in such a way and become friends with it. Failure and I have become good pals.
In his book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman explores emerging studies on how too much positive thinking may actually do us more harm than good. By blocking out the negative: failure, uncertainty, fear, loss, loneliness, we actually make it harder for ourselves to deal with the inevitable failures in life.
Failure not only makes us healthier, more creative, innovative and resilient, but by being open about it, it makes us more likeable too, as no-one likes a show-off. And perhaps we can view someone who is a failure (I use this term affectionately) as a role model: you learn from their mistakes and you take encouragement from their courage.
To perhaps go against Oliver Burkeman’s anti-self help stance, I will end this post with my favourite quote on failure by the late Queen of self-help (who also failed by the way), Susan Jeffers of ‘Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway’: “I am not a failure because I didn’t make it, I am a success because I tried.”