I feel an urge to write something about failure this week. That vastly over-rated and little-understood experience of human life.
I, like most people, have let what I consider to be failure, derail me on more than one occasion. These days, I find myself wondering why. Why do I let that happen? The answers are always deep and personal, I know, but there are certainly general and cultural observations to be made, as well. Observations which often intrigue me as they frequently reveal a crassness and a serious lack of perception about how our society views failure.
We are a society which appears to worship success. However, we mostly define it by using financial and economic criteria. A very limited perspective on life, I feel. Since we also can’t wait for the news that successful people (as defined above) have failed, or as common parlance puts it – ‘lost everything’, I sense that, underneath the envy frequently expressed, we recognise the thinness of the veneer.
I once said to a door-to-door politician (it was election time), “I bet if you asked people, would they rather be rich or happy, they’d pick happy”. He was doubtful. Now isn’t that interesting?
There is another kind of success which many of us worship, and that’s within the sporting world. The drive for achievement, to win gold, to beat the others. This competitive attitude is, of course, one which spills over, inappropriately, into all sorts of other aspects of our culture. I’ve now given up on reading supposedly supportive articles about writing and publishing, for example, because there are too many authors out there who seem to think that in order to be successful, one has to ‘beat the competition’. Nothing about authenticity or integrity in that.
As a long-time fan of a number of sports, I know that the desire to win, whilst being a huge component of the necessary passion to compete, cannot possibly be the only motivation for a participant. Neither can any sportsperson realistically measure their success solely in terms of winning.
Consider, for instance, the average tennis tournament – and I’m not even talking Grand Slams here. Hundreds enter; only one can win. No matter how good you are, unless you are exceptional, you are going to experience failure much more often than you experience winning. And even if you are exceptional, the odds are still massively stacked against you.
No, there has to be more to it, I think. In order to be a successful sportsperson, you actually have to be okay with failure. More than that, you have to be good at failing. You have to be willing to enter competitions week after week, month after month, knowing that you can’t win every time. That you will ‘fail’ more than you will succeed. How fascinating.
I recently gained a small insight into the frame of mind one requires to be able to ride this astonishing wave when something travelling the internet airwaves came my way. A fabulous story told by a woman about her childhood. Her father, apparently, would enquire of each of his children, as they sat around the dinner table in the evening, what they had failed at that day.
Contrary to many people’s experience, his purpose was not to humiliate or berate them, or even to urge them to do better. Rather, his belief was that if you hadn’t failed at something new each day, you’d missed an opportunity. Failure, in that family, was a cause for celebration, and all of the children grew up without that paralysing fear of failure which so many of us experience.
Having recently failed spectacularly by writing a piece that was ‘out there’ for one of the groups I belong to, and which was roundly criticised, I wish to congratulate myself for having tried it out. I might even do it again!
I’m practising, you see. Making a bold attempt to emulate a very special nineteen-year-old, who will, in all likelihood become a multiple F1 champion one day – or not. His words, spoken with equanimity, are my title this week, and because English is not his first language, his ‘failure’ to order the words as we would expect, lends them extra meaning.