Try to fail more. That’s my one resolution this year. To be fair I’m already fairly well qualified. I’ve failed so many times at so many things that it would be difficult to know where to begin. At work, friendships, unfinished projects, decisions regretted. On the surface I see this as serial failure. A litany of errors. What’s that inverted sporting analogy? Perfectly able to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
But wiser people than me helped me take a different view. They remind me that, in every situation that goes wrong, after the initial pain subsides, not all is lost. I’m less harmed than I thought. And instead of fixating on fatal flaws, I have begun to see these experiences as somehow important. I have come to realise that unless I fail, I’m probably not making progress.
“Failure is not an option,” was a phrase attributed (mistakenly) to Gene Kranz from the Apollo 13 moon landing mission that went wrong. But not only is failure an option, we need to know that it is both inevitable and desirable.
When a project goes wrong, a job ends badly, a relationship collapses, we feel pain, disappointment and hurt. This can create a sense that we have failed in some way. We make bad decisions and ask ourselves, had we acted differently, would life have played out better? Would all now be well?
Yet deep down we know that failure is a healthy part of learning and developing. We teach children that they need to learn to fail, so they learn to build resilience. Learning how to respond to failure is key to building a well-balanced life. Heraclitis says ‘character is destiny’. And nothing better shows our true character than the way we deal with failure – our own, and that of others.
Many say that failing has pushed them onto better things. “Fail fast,’” says business guru Seth Godin, encouraging us to get problems quickly out in the open. This sounds slick and easy, but we know how terrible it feels when we’ve invested plenty of time and energy, and things still go wrong. There’s nothing instant about the way we pull ourselves back from the feeling of having failed. Some people never recover from it.
So how can we help ourselves by approaching failure differently?
| Do we see failure as our end, or as our beginning?
Do our mistakes signal a steady downturn in our fortunes, or herald a new start and fresh opportunities? If we see failure as an endpoint – then we judge everything that might go wrong as a threat, we become afraid to risk new experiences, and this fear of failing breeds anxiety. The more anxious we become the less we are prepared to risk new things: meeting new people, forging new relationships, applying for that job. Because if these ‘risks’ go wrong, we believe it is us that has failed.
Whereas, if we see failure as just a beginning, then we begin to see it as the inevitable side effect of trying lots of new things. We know some things will work out well, while other things will fall flat. It is those things external to us that go well, or that fail, and not ourselves. We develop a more balanced mindset to success and failure, which better protects us from judgement and blame.
Leonardo da Vinci recalled 1492 as the lowest point in his life. Having failed to secure the commission to decorate the Sistine Chapel, he experienced his worst artistic failure. He’d taken so long preparing a huge statue for the Duke of Milan, that war had broken out and the Duke, requiring all the metal he could lay his hands on, pulled apart the emerging bronze horse. Even Michaelangelo mocked, ‘the stupid people of Milan had faith in you, Leonardo.’ But Leonardo used this public failure as the beginning as the next stage of his life. He established himself in Milan, researched architecture and engineering, and began dissecting corpses and conducting scientific experiments. So, instead of compromising his potential with pretty royal portraits, he used failure as a springboard to realise his full capabilities.
2 | Success = lots of small failures, and a few big wins
Most successful people have understood that they need a different approach to failure. They embrace the idea that in order to achieve a tiny number of successes, they need to come up with lots of possibilities: proposals, ideas, compositions, images, songs, drafts. The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas, and yet know that a high proportion of these will inevitably fail. Nobel prize winners published twice as many papers as non-winners. Thomas Edison issued 1093 patents. Picasso produced 20 000 works and Bach more musical works than practically any other classical composer. Their numeric output was part of their long-lasting creativity. The number of our best ideas is directly related to the total amount of ideas produced. And they also know that, with this strategy, no one remembers their failures. Survivorship bias helps us, because while we preoccupy with disappointments, others will help us by focusing on our wins.
3 | Reduce the significance of a failure – draw your future career
We get stuck on our failures because we cannot see the future beyond them – we only see the black hole of “Will anyone still want me?” So, when things become difficult, it automatically feels terminal. What does it look like instead if you could line up your whole career on paper (your career to date plus the one you have yet to live out) and place this particular disappointment in the right context.
Draw a timeline of your achievements, your age, roles, job moves, and within all of that, drop the pin of this failure into place. Now how does this particular difficulty look? Is it quite so foreboding?
4 | Replay previous disappointments
It can help when we recall previous disappointments, the times early in our career when things were not going well, when we faced crisis. Our brain will no doubt have helpfully tried to erased these, but think hard and you’ll re-find them. Now remind yourself of the inner resources upon which you drew to help overcome that particular crisis, and harness these again.
5 | Own it
When I have experienced disappointment and failure at work, friends have helpfully pointed out the people who let me down. While it was easy to wallow in this sense of injustice, I quickly realised that, however accurate or not, this was not going to help. It would only keep me stuck in a particularly destructive train of thought. All the what ifs in the world were not going to change the past, and those individuals were not going to help me – the only person who could was me. When things go wrong we need to acknowledge three things: (a) what went wrong, (b) our part in that failure and (c) what I can change. Begin reverse gear as quickly as you can. Actually, it’s not reverse gear, it’s forward gear. You just don’t know it yet.
6 | Find your cracks
We have a negative view of failure – that neither personally nor professionally can we show signs to the outside world. Successful people have no flaws. We must hide the cracks. After all, we’ve been told for years that Humpty Dumpty took a fall, and try as they might, all the king’s men couldn’t put him together again.
But there is an alternative – that the more we reveal the cracks (which are there whether we choose to reveal them or not), the less we fail. The things we are ashamed to reveal to the world, may actually be what is most helpful for others. “Forget your perfect offering,” Leonard Cohen tells us, “there is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”
A story is told of a fifteenth century Japanese elder, Rikyu, journeying through the country, who was invited to dinner by a host. The host tried to impress the elder with an elaborate antique tea jar he’d bought from China. Rikyu seemed not to notice it, instead admiring a branch swaying gently in the breeze. When Rikyu left to continue his travels, the host, in despair, smashed the jar. But the household gathered up the pieces and, using kintsugi, stuck them together. When the elder next visited, the philosopher immediately saw the repaired jar and, with a knowing smile, exclaimed, “Now it is magnificent!”
Kintsugi is a repair technique which takes a special lacquer (urushi) mixed with powdered gold to repair broken pottery. This ancient art reassembles the smashed remnants of the pot, and instead of hiding the cracks, instead makes them into something much more special – lining them with gold. The mistakes become not only a part of the final piece, they become their most important feature. Transformation has taken place. Kint – sugi means golden – joinery.
When we heal from past failures or hurts, we are re-made into something more valuable than before, as long as we get the right mix of glue and gold to fill the cracks. The most effective epoxy is one which fixes slowly, so the bonds last longer. When bouncing back from failure we want to heal quickly, but too little gold in the mix means the bond is too brittle. In our road to recovery, we need to give ourselves the flexibility to prepare for future setbacks.
7 | Repair is timeless – mending myself
In the British Museum, there are repaired broken ceramics dating back to 7000 BC. Artisans produced goods which were costly to buy everyone, rich and poor, repaired what was damaged. This continued down the centuries, every village and town full of craftsmen repairing everything from ceramics to tools, watches to wheels. Today, when we want to find a ‘mender,’ we reach for YouTube to fix the mower, unblock the sink or find the snipping tool.
I’ve been re-watching The Repair Shop, where a giver brings to the shop old things to be made new again. There is something beautiful about accomplished artisans breathing new life through time-worn skills; real craft in an age of mass production. I love the ‘wow’ moment, after hours of labour and polish and a lick of paint, when the cloth is suddenly withdrawn, and the giver receives back her precious family heirloom. Of course, the finished piece shines more than the dusty version that was left, but it’s more than that. It is appreciably better than the original.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, because something extra has been added: not only polish and a little extra love and attention, but a back story, a family narrative. Fiona Cameron-Lister reminds us that there are two important lessons to learn from craft. The first is that we are losing the ability to work with our hands, “humans are designed to move and make, not sit and scroll.” The second is this: mended objects, like mended people, are usually stronger. At the wedding of Princess Eugenie in 2018, the bride elected to wear a backless dress, consciously chosen to show off her scoliosis surgery scar. Aged 12, she underwent major surgery on her spine. and this choice of dress was her way of thanking those who had treated her and to encourage other young people suffering with this condition.
8 | Which narrative will I believe?
Each of us has a history – a personal story which puts our fears into a context. We’d like an upward curving career graph. But instead, we often colour in our own storylines not with bold narratives, but with anxious thoughts or demoralising words. In the 2014 film Birdman, Michael Keaton plays a washed-out actor trying to start his life again, but his efforts are haunted by the voice of the Birdman, the superhero role that made him famous. The voice in his head tells him his life has been a story of failure and missed chances. The question throughout the film is: will he listen to that voice or dare to believe that he can fly again?
9 | Helping others with failure
It is good to build a culture where it is OK to make mistakes, but it is better to create a climate where not only is this the case, but mistakes are what we actually expect. I’ve seen lots of corridors covered in growth mindset posters only for staff to be picked up first time they get something wrong, or hauled over the coals when what they need is support. I am thankful that I sometimes fail, because it teaches me I am not enough on my own, and that actually, I’m not on my own. We need others to help us improve, and picking ourselves up is a lot easier when there is someone’s shoulder to lean on, a hand to lift us up.
10 | Fail well
How has Richard Osman, with his bestseller The Thursday Murder Club, become an overnight writing success? It just doesn’t seem fair, on top of all his other gifts. And then I heard him tell this story on Desert Island Discs:
“Almost everything you ever do is going to fail. I always say fail well. I did a TV show called Boys Unlimited starring James Corden which failed really badly, and came off air after one series, and I was devastated. It stopped me writing for years and years. But I forced myself to write a letter to the commissioners who took it off air, which said that it must have been a hard meeting, and disappointing, but I absolutely loved working with you, and I’d love the opportunity to do so again. I was really hurting when I wrote that letter. But that’s the letter to write, because so many people instead would say, ‘you got it wrong, how dare you’. But they are not going to work with them again.”
A few weeks ago, Osman went down to Sussex to do some signings at the book shop in Brighton he’d go to when I was a kid.
“I knew the book was a hit and I knew my life had changed. Sometimes it’s important to be proud of ourselves – that’s quite difficult for people, and it’s difficult for me. But in the back of the car on the way home I knew it, and I burst into tears.”
It does us no harm to fail a little.