Children understand failure. Adults, however, seem to have difficulty grasping it. When a child falls while learning to walk, they get straight back up again. When they can’t master the art of riding a bike, they might take a day and try again. When adults fail, we like to shut down, cry into a tin of celebrations and look for a life-affirming quote on Instagram. We also never dare speak of the failure again.
We live in a constant stream of #GirlBoss, #lifegoals, and #motivation. The age of influence is seducing us with a perfect world, where success is instant and continuous. Humans fail all the time, but social media is for focusing on success. Stories of heartbreak, job losses, and failed interviews won’t get you a double tap but lavish holidays and a new car will find its way to the top of the algorithm.
What are you doing with your life?
My group of friends and I are in our early twenties; most have finished college and are now working full-time. Many of us, including myself, had to take a year out to live and work at home after finishing our university education. We had no money, no jobs and felt a little lost after enjoying the security blanket of education for so long.
The number one damning question we received each day was “so, what are you doing with your life now?” This was usually accompanied by “I suppose there are no jobs in your degree?” We felt like failures. We thought we should have had the riches of the world handed to us after a four-year university education. We felt judged and criticized for not being at a particular post-college milestone in life.
What we didn’t realize was that this proposed 'failure' was actually a stepping stone, allowing us to learn more about life and what made us happy. Not every path is a straight road. The triumphs and failures create the bends which make the journey all the more fulfilling.
When we discussed the issue of failure in IMAGE HQ, I wasn’t surprised that much of the office was unwilling to hand over their stories of loss. It opens up wounds of vulnerability. But, the general consensus was that these events, however big or small, taught us something valuable. We grew a thicker skin. There were new perspectives on life. We lived, we learned, we survived.
How to fail
This isn’t to say that all failures are full of existential moments of enlightenment. Some are utterly heart-breaking. Some are brutal, soul-destroying and destructive all at once. Many are chaotic, throwing you headfirst into uncertain waters. But, it is these life-altering moments that will define you. Your reaction can be your win. In the very darkest of moments, the greatest opportunities can be created.
“How to Fail” by journalist Elizabeth Day is a wondrous podcast where eight highly successful figures are interviewed, not about their success, but about their failures. Day said she was fascinated by how men and women reacted to failing, “men I approached balked at the idea they had failed at anything, they cited lost tennis matches and unrisen soufflés.
Women routinely responded that they would have trouble whittling down their myriad failures to just three instances.” Would it not be a perfect world then, to have men open up and accept them a little more, and women to punish themselves a little less.
It’s easy to forget the most successful of people have all failed at some point and have subsequently triumphed. Oprah got publically fired from her very first job. JK Rowling was broke, divorced and raising a child on her own while simultaneously studying and writing Harry Potter. And famous basketball player Michael Jordan said he was trusted 26 times to take the winning shot in his career and missed, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
The notion that life is a perpetual flash mob, with cartoon birds and one million dollars at the end of the rainbow needs to stop. Although those people lounging on the yacht seemed to have gained it all so easily, they have not. They too have failed, they just won’t discuss it.
We shouldn’t be regretful or reluctant to talk about those dark times that we all have or will ultimately face. You will find a person whose situation is starkly similar to yours, and you will realise that they too have survived. Failure is the universal experience that binds us all. So why shouldn’t we express it?
And if all else fails, we get up, take a day, and try and try and try again.
Related: ‘Failure is not an option because other women are watching - little girls are watching’
Related: Are you confident your self-esteem can handle failure?
Related: The game of life: how to navigate failed expectations