On Failing

Praise of failure as a necessary part of the path to success has becomes something of a growth industry in recent years as we have come to appreciate better the learning opportunities that failing affords. That does not make the experience of failure any more palatable, but it can help to contextualise it.

However, there is a mistake that is commonly made here, and I have already to some extent made it even in these four or five lines, which is the assumption that something good must come of everything bad. We like to tell ourselves this to console ourselves, and telling us such things as that “every cloud has a silver lining” may help to soften the blow or alleviate the pain; the trouble is that it isn’t always true. And the reason why that matters is that if we allow ourselves to believe the lie that it is possible to find the positives in anything, we will be particularly distraught on the many occasions when we just can’t. And the reason why sometimes we just can’t is that sometimes there just isn’t anything positive to find.

So let’s throw away this false assumption, this consolation, and face the fact that we will all from time to time fail; let’s equally, without making as much fuss about it, recognise that sometimes we will fail for no fault of our own just because there is stuff going on out there there is neither rational, justifiable nor fair; and let’s not forget that sometimes we will fail purely and simply because we mess up, get something wrong, don’t prepare thoroughly enough, find ourselves in competition with someone who is better or deemed better by those with the decision-making power, and that sometimes we are just not good enough.

Everybody fails sooner or later. Even those who seem to live lives blessed by the gods fall over eventually. Or so we like to think. But it is just as important to set this consolation aside as well: there is absolutely no point or purpose or consolation to be had from the fact that others fail, too. Allowing ourselves a self-indulgent smirk when someone we deem more fortunate or successful than ourselves comes a cropper is debilitating and demotivating; as a way of thinking about and rationalising our own misfortunes and failures it absolutely sucks. Why? Because it helps us to achieve absolutely nothing: it makes us feel good for something that represents no positive achievement, no step forward, no learning, no advancement whatsoever. So it removes one of our strongest motives to make progress, by affording us satisfaction even though we have achieved nothing.

Let’s face it: sometimes we will fail for no better reason than that the world plays one of its unkind tricks that has no moral or rational justification; we just find ourselves dumped on our backsides and staring up at the stars wondering whether it is worth getting up. And sometimes the reason for our failure will be that we just weren’t good enough; maybe we will never be good enough to achieve something we aspire to. But telling ourselves that only makes sense when it becomes incontrovertibly true. As someone once said, engineering says that the bumble bee can’t fly, but fortunately nobody told the bumble bee. The only absolute certainty is that you can’t succeed if you don’t try. But there is no law of the universe that says that you can’t fail and still succeed except the one we find floating about in our own heads because we allow it room to be there, the one that says “There, I told you so: you’ve never been any good at anything; you’re such a loser!”

There is a horrible phrase that occurs in some ghastly American boy-makes-good baseball movie or other whose title I can’t remember and frankly don’t want to remember: “You show me a good loser, and I’ll show you a loser!” But actually we need to turn this on its head: we all have to be good losers; we all have to lose and smile and affirm ourselves and tell ourselves how well we did even though we lost or failed or fell or metaphorically died, even and perhaps especially when it was because we messed up. Ask a stand-up comic; ask actors who have dried; ask politicians who have been defeated; ask job-applicants who have been rejected despite the best cvs and the best experience: the thing that makes the difference is that those who fall over and remain flat on their faces staring into the mud, those that is who believe that failure is forever, subscribe to a self-fulfilling delusion, that there is something wrong or unnatural about failing.

And yes, it may be unfair, unjustifiable, irrational, a complete coincidence or an elaborate conspiracy, but telling yourself that will not make you more likely to get up and try again. And hating the person who succeeds where you fail, or worse still envying them their success, will make absolutely no contribution to your own recovery at all. Better to say “Well done! You deserved it! I’ll achieve as much next time.” So let’s change the metaphor: the great merit of falling over and lying flat on your back is that it affords an excellent opportunity to gaze at the stars.

Our greatest glory lies, not in never failing, but in rising every time we fall.

Attributed to Confucius.


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