The flip-side to failure

“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.”

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July 2012: My "F**k It" month

“I once asked a Jesuit priest what was the best short prayer he knew. He said, “F**k it,” as in, “F**k it; it’s in God’s hands.”

– Anthony Hopkins

When I came back from London after my interview (that I mentioned in my post 29), I decided that July 2012 was going to be my “F**k It” month. I would literally apply this glorious phrase to every decision I made. Every day, I noted down what I said this magical obscenity to and would just see what happened in the process. To celebrate the first anniversary of my new attitude, I would like to share with you some of the things I said “f**k it” to this time last year and how it began to change the course of my life.

The F**k It Life was created by John C Parkin and his wife Gaia. They worked in advertising in London and had spent many years studying Eastern philosophy and meditation. Even though they liked their jobs, they had enough of their life in London and decided to leave it all behind them and move to Italy to start retreats. They claim that saying this phrase can be just as powerful as practising Buddhism and meditation, because when you say it, you immediately become detached and non-judgmental, which are some of the central tenets of Eastern philosophy.

I became instantly hooked when I read that little picture book last year. Since then I’ve devoured more of their books and passed them on to others (they are an excellent gift!).  I found these two simple words so liberating because essentially the philosophy is based around the idea (or the truth) that things really don’t matter so much. So when I started realising that things really don’t matter so much, I became less attached to lost dreams or what people thought of me. I became more forgiving of trespasses against me and those of my own doing. I worried less about what I should be doing and focussed more on what I was actually doing. And the great thing about all of this? I was actually having fun! I said yes more, I tried out new things, I stopped doing the things I disliked and I swore a lot!

So here are some of the things that were getting me down that I decided to let go:

1. Not having a life plan.
2. Not having any savings.
3. Failing to become a practising lawyer before I even started.
4. Seeking approval from others.
5. Caring about people who were just not that into me.

And on the flip side, I:

1. Ate more chocolate.
2. Wore pink jeans.
3. Did an Art Nouveau cycling tour.
4. Wrote articles about my life in Brussels and my failed legal career.
5. Revelled in the boring bits of my job.
6. Joined a musical theatre company.
7. Tried different dishes and new restaurants.
8. Let people go who were hurting me.
9. Enjoyed the rain (it rained a lot last July).

By just even saying it, I immediately relaxed: the tension lifted; my breath deepened; my pulse steadied. There is something really magical about it because as soon as you say it, the worry does disappear; it may be temporary at first, but just remember that feeling of relief and keep going.

I did not do any wild stuff during this month but I noticed the changes. I became more accepting of my lot, and yet at the same time more willing to expand my comfort zone and re-configure my lot. I became more trusting of my ability and consequently I felt like I used less brain power but achieved better results. I also realised that I didn’t need to be anyone or do anything to be ok. Perhaps that is what freedom is.

So, why don’t you take up the challenge? Let July 2013 be your “F**k It” month and see what changes it brings about? As one caption in the picture book says, “Be open to something spectacular happening today.”  But please keep it lawful; I take no responsibility for any f**k ups.

Making the world a better place

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
– Rumi

I always thought my mission in life was to make the world a better place. I tormented myself with these dreams and ideas and questions. The endless stream of questions was what tormented me the most: “How was I going to do it? Should I start my own charity? Maybe it’s by becoming a human rights lawyer or campaigner? How would I get there? Would I make my mark in this world? Would I save the world and would people remember my legacy?”

Gosh. Those are extremely demanding questions to ask of anyone, let alone of myself. I used to get extremely bogged down by these questions to which I had no answers to. Of course I would try: I did the volunteering, interning and working; I did the studies, I read the books, I even marked out a plan to my Mum, but I always felt lost, out of my depth. And when I started to feel all those things, I felt pretty useless and then I felt like a failure.

I remember one morning late last year when I was hanging up some clothes in my wardrobe, that a clear realisation hit me: perhaps I am not supposed to make the world a better place. Suddenly, with the weight of those words falling from the tip of my head to the depths of my stomach, I felt at peace. I accepted it and it felt ok.

That afternoon, a friend came round for a cup of tea. A lot had been weighing on her mind but I got the impression that she was at pains to talk about it. I had asked after her family. What I thought was an innocuous question opened the floodgates of tears, fears and regrets. I sat with her on my comfy couch, I held her hand and gave her a big bear hug, with all my might. She let it all out, and I was grateful.

When my friend left I suddenly knew. Making the world a better place is most of time not “saving the world”. Most of the time it’s the little things like telling a friend that you are there for them and are proud to be the person they opened up to.

It’s funny, you have an idea of what something ought to be, and then life turns round and shows you how limited in your thinking you were.