Rethinking Failure

After a long absence from updating this blog, I have returned. In my last blog I was determined to write about the adventures of doing something new, and, like so many, made a resolution and promptly failed to carry it out. There is nothing new in that – life is paved with failed resolutions. What was new was making a public statement about the intent (as much as a public statement on a probably little read blog can be public!). You would have thought that this would be a challenge to follow the resolution through, but no, it was not.

Failure: that experience that we all beat ourselves up over. None of us likes failure and yet we are all experts at it.

A recent article by Tom Hodgkinson, editor of The Idler, reflected on this. He pondered on how we judge ourselves against others: seeing others as more successful and happy than ourselves. Failures are rarely broadcast so we are poor judges of whether the people we compare ourselves against have failed and what it took to become a success. We only, he said, see the surface.

I was reminded of this once when traveling on a crowded train. We clung to our straps and support bars or sat silently, swaying with the motion of the train. Some people were reading, others intent on whatever device they were using while
others just stared into space. Whatever they were doing, there was no expression that allowed me to know their emotions or how they were  feeling or whether they considered themselves successful or not. If I was feeling sad I could have read them as successful; they were returning from work to their families; they were successful – they knew who they were, to whom they belonged and where they were going. But I would have had no evidence of this. Just as there was no evidence of their failures during the day. Any judgement I made was mere assumption based on my own feelings, observations and judgements.

As Tom Hodgkinson wrote:

        All I see when I walk the streets of London are fleets of sleek  black cars             everywhere, which has the effect of making me feel  like a failure because I         am skint.

He wonders about people’s home lives and reflects that any amount of fame and money cannot compensate for poor relationships; that every life is peppered with joy and woe making envy of perceived success futile.

Hodgkinson writes that in fact all successful people are failures

...because they have dozens of failed projects behind them.

How true and yet, when we compare our failure status against the successful person, we only compare ourselves against the successful project. We do not even consider the failed projects or even that there may have been failures before the success.

My guess is that ultimately, the so-called successful person has the ability to be reasonably phlegmatic about those ideas and projects that did not materialise as hoped.   This does not necessarily mean that they did not worry about failure at the time of development. Rather, once completed they put it behind them and do not let past failures define them.

Hodgkinson suggests that

          Failure is polite. To be imperfect is an act of courtesy to your fellow humans.             In the same way, to appear to be hugely successful is an act of extreme                     rudeness, simply because it excites envy and jealousy in others.

I like the idea of politeness of failure but am unsure of his corollary, that success is extreme rudeness. Rather, I think we need to change our attitude to failure, particularly our own. We need to see it as a process of learning on the road to
achievement. The toddler who starts to walk doesn’t just stand up and walk. He or she stands up and falls down and then stands up again. The first steps are tentative and are inevitably unsuccessful. We don’t label the toddler as a failure because of this lack of intial success.

We also need to consider what we mean by achievement. Does achievement and its success have to measure against everybody else? Can we celebrate our achievement for its own sake? – just as the toddler laughs with joy when he or she reaches the
open arms of the waiting parent. Not every success leads to financial and social accolades. Rather, the success of doing a job well, of being kind and courteous to friends, family and others leads to love and respect. Is this not success,
regardless of the glossy advertisements of success? Surely a big house or car is not the benchmark of success? Let us confidently set our own benchmarks based on our beliefs and values. Let us learn from our failures and see them as steps toward learning and achievement of goals based on our own goodness and best intentions. Let us move away from the materialistic tokens of success.

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