Putting “failure” in its place

In a society that worships success, it’s easy to fail – but hard to fail well.  It is even hard to be sure what “failing well” might mean, although it’s likely to include being fairly graceful about it, avoiding bitterness or blame, learning something from it and not allowing it to obliterate your hard-won confidence.

That brief list already asks a lot, because a mistake or error of judgement usually tips into the gloomy pits of failure only when the event is fairly serious.  With some “failures”, there may be no mistake at all.  You might fail to get a job, for example, but have done everything you could.  You might fail to impress a new date, get a promotion, or soothe a suffering friend.  The challenge then is to recognise that you are dealing with disappointment, sadness or frustration, rather than failure.  How you do that will depend on a number of factors.  The occasional frustration in an otherwise rosy life is a very different proposition from dealing with the latest in a painfully extended series of blows.  In fact, when one disappointment leads rapidly to another, something more than patience and resilience is needed. You may need to take an uncomfortably honest look at what you are hoping for – and what you are offering.

We live in a brutal world of short cuts where crass stereotypes often prevail.  Learning not to take rejection too personally – especially when the person doing the rejecting barely knows you or doesn’t know you at all – is crucial to robust survival.  But that should not prevent you from also being coolly realistic about whether you are routinely setting yourself up for disappointment rather than giving yourself at least some chance of setting a goal and achieving it.

The more familiar forms of failure – doing something badly or perhaps not brilliantly – are also psychologically complex.  A fear of failure, and especially of being “seen” to fail, can be brutally inhibiting for many people.  That’s often because they have given too much power away.  Many people go through life full of anxiety about what they assume other people are thinking, scarcely noticing that most people are not thinking about them at all and that the fiercest critic is always lodged in their own mind.  Other people’s mistakes are easier for us to overlook than our own, especially when they don’t personally inconvenience us.  We may even be somewhat consoled by them (“You are human, too.”).  People who are openly unkind or malicious in response to other people’s mistakes are generally making it painfully clear how insecure and anxious they themselves really are – obnoxiously projecting those fears, and the shame and humiliation they themselves dread, onto everyone else.

Knowing that you are prepared to take some risks makes for a far more engaged and exciting life than keeping yourself safe by sticking only to what’s achievable or familiar.  Often the most stimulating opportunities will extend your capabilities or even exceed them. You risk falling flat on your face, yes, but you might also fly.  And even if you do fall flat, that will always matter far less than your willingness to try again.

When I was researching my recent book, Choosing Happiness: Life & Soul Essentials, I was startled to discover how many people have convinced themselves that doing something well is not nearly good enough.  More than doing their best, those people desperately want to be the best – and to be applauded by others.  But that limits their options even further.  Few of us are “the best” at anything much at all. Even when we are, that pleasure is always fleeting. Keeping a sense of proportion (and humour) about both success and failure, and relishing the risk of doing something for interest, learning, the benefit of others, or plain joy – rather than “”applause”” – may not make for the safest life, but it will certainly make for a happier, more exciting and more enriching one.

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