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The fruit of failure

Updated: Feb 8, 2023

It’s hard to escape stories of success.

Our newsfeeds are jammed full of lists with tips on how to be more successful in work, love and life generally. We are inundated with autobiographies, documentaries and talks from people who have made it to the top. There’s nothing wrong with celebrating success, but as the (highly successful) writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, talks about in her TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, the idea that there is just one narrative can obscure and invalidate other ways of being. Our collective addiction to success has a shadow side – our allergy to failure.

Nobody really likes to talk about failure. It’s a little bit like sexually transmitted diseases or institutionalised racism, a topic that’s swept under the carpet and not mentioned in polite society. Except, of course, by those who have encountered failure along the way to grand success. Then it’s allowed to become a sanitised and amusing antidote of a bump in the road, or a wobble on the way. But real failure doesn’t feel like a bump or a wobble, it can be a full-on emotional earthquake that threatens to pull your whole world apart. Failure is scary, and the more that we ignore it, the scarier it becomes.

Most of us are totally unprepared for failure.

Our culture’s central narrative of success, paired with the Optimism bias, a cognitive bias that causes you to believe that you are less likely to experience negative events than other people, can create a potent Kool Aid. Along with other popular ideas of manifestation and positive thinking, this can cause us to expect that everything will turn out the way that we want it to. This amazingly unfounded optimism is not all bad, it encourages us to start businesses, even though we know that 90% of Start Ups don’t make it. It encourages us to get married when we know almost half of all marriages end in divorce. But it also means failure can come as a real surprise.

Pema Chödrön, delivered an address to the graduates of The Naropa University, inspiringly titled “Fail, fail again, fail better.” In her talk she spoke about the fine art of failing and how learning how to fail well, could be the most important thing that we ever learn to do.

Failing feels uncomfortable. When we fail, we often find ourselves itching to blame someone or something for that feeling. We either lash out, blaming other people or circumstances or lash in, blaming ourselves for the fact that things didn’t work out the way we wanted. We sometimes label ourselves, “A Failure” and feel like something is wrong with us. This can cause us to retreat, put our defences up and withdraw from others – not a great recipe for mental health.

So how do we learn to fail better?

Firstly, it takes courage. You need to be prepared to stay with that icky, raw feeling of failure for a while and look a little deeper. It can feel like the hardest thing in the world, but when you get curious about failure, it can open up new ways of seeing things. When you really get curious, you can start to ask yourself, “What exactly is failure? Could failure perhaps be things unfolding to give you a nudge in a different direction?” When you start to step out of the single story about failure, you can look around and see what else is there. You see that failure is sometimes just a judgement that we put on things that don’t turn out the way we expect them to. And maybe you could sense into what it would be like to let go of that judgement.

We know that failure is never the end of the story. Life is a constant rollercoaster of pain and pleasure, loss and gain, pride and guilt, fame and shame. To be honest, a lot of it is out of our control, but what we can control is how we react to our circumstances.

Failure is something that I’ve been afraid of for a long time. I’m grateful to have discovered some helpful tools to deal with it, but that doesn’t mean I’m not still blindsided every now and again.

I’ve found that for me, there are three things that have really helped me to be with my failures. The first is my mindfulness practice. Being able to look at my moment-to-moment experience objectively, without getting so caught up in the worries and fears that my thoughts create, allows me to see that failure is not a label to attach to myself or a concrete reality. The feeling of failure is just an emotion and just like any other emotion, it arrives and then leaves, it’s not around for ever. Scientists have discovered that, when they are observed from an objective standpoint, and not fuelled by new negative thoughts, emotions only last for 90 seconds. We can pretty much endure anything for 90 seconds.

Secondly, I’ve discovered that self-compassion so essential to stop the habitual cycles of self-blame and self-abandonment. The only way I can stay with that icky feeling of failure is to hold it gently, like you would hold a fragile newborn baby and offer it care and love, soothing the rawness and pain.

And thirdly, connection can really help. When we feel like we’ve failed, we tend to isolate ourselves and raise our defences, putting on our suit of armour. Often the thing that we dread most is other people finding out about our failures. But even the most successful person has felt like a failure at some point in their life. Failure should be something that connects us, not something that alienates us. Reaching out to someone you trust and speaking about how you’re feeling can help to reassure you that you aren’t alone and can reconnect you to a feeling of belonging. There is something about communicating and connecting from a raw and vulnerable place that allows us to form more authentic bonds and stimulates compassion in others.

Imagine if we were taught how to be with failure from an early age and if we became more aware of the fruits of failure: creativity, connection and wisdom. Perhaps failure would be less of dirty secret and even become something that we could share on social media. If people were less inhibited by the fear of failure, imagine the amazing things that we could discover and create.

Read about why humans find it so hard to learn from our failures here.


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