Radio 4’s series, The Value of Failure, has really got me thinking. Apparently, failure is a good thing. Who knew??
Personally, I’ve experienced plenty of failure: failed friendships, failed pregnancies, failed romances, failed jobs… and my kitchen failures are verging on paranormal! (Which is why I post recipes here – I get so excited if something works out well that I need to photograph it and share it… and I like to think it works out well for my lovely readers too, because honestly, if I can make it, anyone can!) But that’s success. I’m fine with success.
Back to failure, and those moments of realisation that smacked me in the mouth, that held my face to the mirror until I opened my eyes and saw what was there: me.
Some of my earliest failures were sports-related. Despite picturing myself as a champion, I discovered early on that my legs didn’t move as fast as some people’s, nor did they jump as high or as far. I can still visualise being about six and lining up at the starting line for a sportsday sprint. I can see my unnecessarily large, trainer-clad feet poised to carry my little self to victory, and feel the adrenaline of certain glory as I waited to race. But when the starting gun went off, I was surprised to discover that my feet didn’t sprint, they clomped. And my arms didn’t slice through the air, propelling me ever faster down my lane, no, I looked to my sides to see my arms awkwardly punching along completely out of sync with whatever my feet were doing. The other thing I saw was everyone else’s back. I not only didn’t win, I came last. Puzzlingly, disappointingly last. (And note, dear English friends, I grew up in Australia where there’s no lovely sigh of encouragement for the well-intentioned losers on sportsday.)
It’s heartbreaking to look back and remember how I spent the rest of the day thinking that the next event would surely be the one I would win, throwing myself at each and every opportunity with commitment and enthusiasm only to come consistently last. Last, last, last, last, last. I went home without a single ribbon proudly pinned to my chest or even one of those happy little “I did my best” stickers that children get in the UK.
So, what did I learn from this early failure? Well, I learned I was slow and uncoordinated. But I didn’t give up. I determinedly continued to do my absolute best at many sportsdays to come. After leading my team to last place as primary school house captain, I carved a mildly successful niche as a distance runner in secondary school. If nothing else, I could count on my tenacity to force me through the many gasping, heart-pounding paces to a respectable third in the 1500m. Did failure teach me to adapt, teach me resilience, fuel my tenacity? Maybe.
I failed in the physics classroom, and when my mother came home upset that she had been approached by my physics teacher over the possibility of a D on my school report, I reassured her that it would go well with the D I intended to get for chemistry. Perhaps I should credit failure for my sublime skills in smart arsery?
I failed to be selected as a secondary school prefect. Then I failed to finish school altogether. I don’t think I even recognised those as failures at the time. I thought they were cool.
But I recognised my next monumental life failure: the dissolution of my relationship with my eldest child’s father. Wow. That was one heavy duty failure. Looking back it was kinda destined to fail. At 19, upon the startling discovery of two blue lines on a pregnancy test, I knew that I desperately wanted a child while my partner had perfectly understandable reservations. I had recently been named one of the city’s most photographed models, and he was a rising star in the advertising world. We had dreamed about owning Ferraris and living in New York.
Overnight I decided I wanted to throw it all away, settle down and have a baby. We put New York on the backburner for a homely little cottage in the suburbs of Adelaide and instead of a Ferrari, we made plans to buy a twelve year old Volvo stationwagon. But we just weren’t equipped to deal with the reality of family life together. He slogged out his working week as a junior ad man and came home to dirty nappies, and a tired, milky, emotional, distinctly un-modellike girlfriend while his workmates headed out for flaming Sambuccas with the media crowd.
We squabbled about money, spare time and domestic chores. We screamed about responsibility and friends. We forgot to have fun. We neglected our commitments. We fought about everything. Our time together became painful. I cried a lot and decided I wasn’t enough: my everything wasn’t enough. A relationship counsellor eventually recommended we split up.
At the same time I lost many of my oldest and most loved friends. Everything and everyone seemed to be caught up in the one big, disastrous failure that had been set in motion by yours truly. I scooped up my 10-month old son and walked out on my smouldering wreck of a life. 20 years on, my honest appraisal of the situation is that in respect of my eldest child’s father, I have failed to repair the damage of the relationship breakdown, failed to be a great co-parent, and failed in several attempts at friendship and communication.
But I did make a surprising discovery during the fallout of the whole miserable bust up which I have relied upon throughout the many subsequent failures: I can fail and be ok. I can’t tell you what a big surprise that was. It doesn’t mean I want to fail, it doesn’t mean I take a “who cares” approach to failure, it just means that if I’ve truly done my best and it isn’t enough, life goes on.
Over time I have become more familiar and less fearful of failure. It hasn’t killed me and it has made me stronger, just as some wise person told me it would. I’ve had all manner of failures, personal and professional and the thing is, I’m still here and I’m still happy.
But just as I was beginning to feel I had a handle on failure and its inability to create permanent havoc in my life, along comes a new kind of failure, one I feel poorly equipped to manage: my child’s failure. Yes, my daughter failed her grammar school entrance exam. My curious, independent, funny, ambitious, clever daughter went “all dreamy for a few minutes” during one of the three crucial papers. She was a sure thing. She was me at the starting line with too-big-feet, ready to race, ready to win. She was me with the confidence of youth and love and foreverness. She was smiling, happy, confident, successful me.
Sadly, she was also crumpled, defeated, sobbing me, trying to hear people explain that failure will make her better, make her stronger. And one of those voices was mine.
In attempting to console my daughter last night I found myself telling her about a recent proud moment. It was the day she found out she’d failed her exam and wouldn’t be going to the secondary school she – and many of her friends – had pinned their hopes on. After wiping her tears away and calming her breathing, she wanted to call her friends to see how they’d gone. As one after the other announced with jubilant excitement that they had passed with flying colours, she genuinely smiled and said “I’m so happy for you – congratulations.” And she was. I found her grace and courage in the face of failure profoundly moving.
However, dealing with failure isn’t the same as seeing it’s value. I’m not sure my daughter can see the up side of this experience just yet, and in fairness, I’m struggling to embrace it. Ahead of us we have a bureaucratic appeal process, lingering uncertainty, a potentially hurtful tribunal appearance and at the end, the possibility of another dose of failure.
But bouyed by The Value of Failure radio programme, and in recounting some of my own failures here I have managed to remind myself that whatever happens next she’s going to be alright. She’s going to be alright.
If you’re going though something similar, I’d love to hear from you. Share your thoughts on failure, what you’ve learned and whether it can indeed be a positive experience.
Also, I strongly recommend listening to The Value of Failure on the BBC radio iPlayer…
Post script: My daughter did indeed get a place at a grammar school on appeal. Her failure dented her confidence in a way I can still see two years later, but has also motivated her to be an even more attentive and committed student.