It seems like a contradiction, but failing has made me successful and I have absolutely no doubt that any authentic person would agree with me: namely that any failure has massive learning opportunities.
I was prompted to write this blog due to two points: I have recently finished reading Elizabeth Day’s excellent book How to Fail: the semi-autobiographical book highlights stages of her personal development and how ‘failure’ assisted in her becoming the person she is. She also has a podcast with the same name and has interviewed some ‘big names’ who have shared their failures.
But I was also struck by watching the British tennis player, Johanna Konta, who lost her quarter final tennis match at Wimbledon yesterday. At the press conference, some of the journalists were asking very unfair questions and the word ‘failure’ was said more than once. She was hardly a failure: in statistical terms she was in the top 8 of the women’s competition at Wimbledon: an astonishing achievement, and I have no doubt she will be focusing on what went wrong in the match with her coach, when she has physically and mentally recovered from the match.
Watch the interview here:
I was brought up to believe that failure was a binary point: either you are successful or you fail. I was discouraged to compete in things: whether they were the election for a sports captain; doing music grades for my instruments (I must be the only post grad music student to not have any music grades!); competing in cake or sewing competitions etc. I had a very clear message that I was setting myself up for ‘failure’ and also that I wasn’t good enough to ‘compete’. It is no surprise that I felt unable to set myself big targets due to the conditioning from my upbringing: there was a clear message to play small. Even a couple of years ago my parents tried to discourage me from entering my home grown tomatoes into the village horticultural society show ‘There will be lots of people who have been growing tomatoes for years’ – yet I was thrilled to have my name in the programme, and guess what; the tomatoes won first prize! The fact is that winning first prize was a bonus: I had a target of exhibiting my tomatoes at a show, which meant I grew as a person.
The neuroscientist Dr Lynda Shaw says that if we have a target, we override our fears or conditioning of previous situations. Whilst I am interpreting Dr Shaw’s comment, if we have some targets to get better, be bold, be successful, we can pick ourselves up when we have a disappointment or ‘failure’.
And what is failure anyway? Is it WHENEVER you aren’t literally the best in the world? Do we call Serena Williams a failure because she didn’t win Wimbledon last year? Or Federer? NO! Failure isn’t binary success/failure, yet so often in our culture, this is the perception. I am not saying that there should be no losers in a competition: competition is healthy, yet in order to have people competing at any level, we have to eradicate that the winner who is the only person who is NOT a failure. You are failing to grow as a person if you don’t grab opportunities to be involved. And as JK Rowling so memorably put it: “It’s impossible to live without failing, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case you have failed by default.”
So what do you feel you should do to fail with positive outcomes? Here are three tips:
- If you shoot for the stars, you might land on the moon. If you aim for something smaller, like a hill in the middle distance, you might get a small win! There is something about aiming BIGGER and BETTER than feels comfortable, then the outcome could be better than you originally thought! Don’t forget this will make you feel uncomfortable, with your little voice telling you NO! But remember the saying “If you ain’t gonna die, give it a try!”
- Prepare as much as you possibly can. One point about success and failure is that there is often self sabotage: in other words by not preparing sufficiently, arriving late etc which give you an excuse for not being the best you can. Watch you don’t do that!
- Whatever happens, take some time to reflect on the outcomes. Avoid doing this straight after the event, as you will be having a dip of adrenaline (this is why it is so unfair to interview Johanna Konta in this style just after coming off court). Take some time out to see what worked; what didn’t; what would you do differently next time and what you have learnt.
Whether you are stepping up to speak at an event; doing a presentation; applying for that dream job: DO IT. You will not be a failure.
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