I hate to echo a certain president of a one-time-leader of the free world, but even the unmentionable one understands that "in any case you mustn't confuse a single failure with a final defeat". I feel better for knowing that the source of the quote is one of my favourite authors: F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald probably knew a lot about failure. This particular piece of wisdom comes from Tender is the Night a book now recognised to be what he always thought it was: his finest work. It was not well-received at the time. He had distilled everything he had learned through the pain of his own life with Zelda and melded it into a shimmering work of art…and folk simply 'didn't get it'.
Too late for the author to appreciate perhaps, but the book is now the success – the enduring absolute classic legacy kind of success – that perhaps he secretly hoped it would be. Gatsby might still be the more famous, but we can look up on that as gateway book, the way into the world, which for all its now being nearly a century old, still resonates loudly for most of us.
I could ramble on about that world, but really what I'm pondering today is the nature of 'failure'. The aphorisms about light bulbs and all the rest have been done to darkness, and to be fair I agree with their innate truth. But there is another side to this notion of failure, and how we should respond to it.
Get up and get back on the horse! Stop crying and get back on the bike. Try, try and try again. And on and on and on.
But that really on works if you're wanting to be a cavalryman or a jockey; or if you think your life will be incomplete if you can't cycle your way to work or to the picnic; or if a spider's web of whatever kind is your genuine heart's desire.
What if it isn't? What if your failure is the universe's way of whispering "nah, don't bother".
What if you are not the person destined to do whatever it is you feel you are failing at – or indeed what everyone is telling you gently, kindly or in no uncertain terms – that you are definitely failing at? What if you've travelled that road as far as you are meant to?
It may be that you're being blocked really early on – lucky you!
It may be that you've travelled miles and decades down it before you hit the roadblock – but again, I'd say: lucky you! Unless you're fool enough to back up, blast on through, and continue down the wrong highway. Do that, and you're sure to hit the unbridged chasm eventually.
Me? I'm all for listening to the whispers of the world. I'm all for changing direction when the "Road Closed" and "Diversion" signs suggest that maybe it's a good idea to do so. OK, so I'm not going to get where I thought I was going – at least not by the route I thought I was going to take.
I can live with that. In fact, I can embrace that.
I'd love to tell you that I am such an evolved soul that I do this with a serene smile, singing Que Sera Sera. Those who know me know I'm more likely to do it with a strop and a sulk and a petulant "I don't do failure."
Those who know me will ignore me…because they know that I get over my strops and sulks and that when it comes to it, I do failure pretty well. And I practice regularly.
Sometimes, I do it in the orthodox fashion, by getting up and trying again. My career and my personal growth and my planetary explorations are defined by my refusal to be defined by my fears and insecurities.
Mostly, though, I do it by what some might consider 'giving up', but I choose to think of as adjusting the sails, re-mapping the route, or choosing an alternative but equally intriguing destination.
When I was a student back long before the luxury of a 'gap year' was a thing, the height of decadence was to take a month off to go Interrail-ing around Europe. I did this in the mid-1980s. I set off from Germany with an American friend and no plans whatsoever. Two things I learned from this trip: firstly never believe that a friendship will survive more than 2 weeks of 24/7 (we had the sense to part company half way through!) and secondly, the best days were the unplanned ones – the ones when we missed the train we wanted to catch and just got on the next one that came in and descended on the local tourist office to find out what was worth seeing and doing and (hopefully) where we could sleep that night.
All of my career changes have been a combination of serendipity and a willingness to say: this isn't working, let's do (or let me do) something else. I have a feeling that things are about to shift again. If I look back over the last decade, I see all the things I set out to do – and failed.
But I also look back and see all the failures and what they have taught me. And others.
And I also look back and see the successes – the things I (we) set out to do and were brilliant at and really worked and which we didn't always get credit for but we KNOW were vital and important and triumphant and which have formed and will form the basis for other people's experiments, some of which will succeed, and others will not, because they are not us and their circumstances are not ours. Some of them will outshine us and maybe our successes will be re-evaluated.
So might the failures.
It doesn't matter. What matters is the understanding that even a failure is nothing more than a moment in time. A "whoops" – ok, maybe not that way. For all the strops and the sulks, I have never been finally defeated. I am told that my change curve is not the standard U shape, but more like a tick, a sharp down to rock-bottom and an exuberant rebound. Like everyone else I know what the base layer looks like. I simply choose not to stay down there, not while I have a choice.
I always have a choice.
Choose a different route, a different mechanism, a different destination. Re-set the sails or get out the oars. Or indeed, throw out an anchor and simply wait out the calm until your personal trade wind whips up again.
I was taught that we should relabel our 'failures' as 'challenges' or 'set-backs' or 'learning experiences'. Some of them are precisely that…but the problem with that approach is that some of them aren't. Unless we grow into our true selves enough to be able to look a failure in the eye and call it by its true name and make a new plan for what we are going to do about it (get back on the horse or buy a canoe or simply pitch camp) and do that with a glad heart, then we're making life a lot more difficult that it has any right to be.
However bad it might feel, if you're still breathing and can move – it is nowhere near a final defeat. And doing different really isn't the same thing as giving up – don't listen to anyone who tells you it is.
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