There are certain slogans that we’ve all grown used to over the years. Along with the knowledge that success requires hard work, on our hard climbs up whichever ladder it is we’ve chosen, we silently repeat to ourselves that quitters don’t quit, and failure is not an option. We’ve all seen that silly cartoon of two miners in separate tunnels, both about to hit a giant load of treasure, but one gives up and walks away, defeated.
Don’t give up and don’t fail, we’re told.
I believed this for a very long time. I believed that if i hadn’t succeeded, it was my fault. If I hadn’t reached the goals I had, it was because I must have not tried hard enough. And I dreaded failing.
For me, I don’t have a single spectacular fail which I can look back, more like a series of small mishaps and opportunities missed. While I watched my peers race ahead, I didn’t have an impressive head-over-heels tumble. Instead, I missed a few turns, didn’t pace myself correctly or just couldn’t run as fast as them. For a long time, I hated when this happened. I would torment myself with why I hadn’t been able to keep up. Wasn’t I good enough? If I hadn’t been able to keep up, then obviously I wasn’t. If opportunities I knew I could excel at kept going to other people, then obviously I was completely forgettable. People just didn’t remember me or my work when such chances came up.
I’m forgettable! I wailed internally, as if this were a fate worse than death. How could this be possible! I had networked myself to the point of exhaustion until I couldn’t stand the sight of mini sandwiches and glasses of drinks arranged in neat rows. And the results I had hoped for had not followed.
Could it be that I had… failed?
Failure has become such a terrifying prospect that we do anything to avoid it, and when we do fail, we dissect our every move until there is nothing left to pick apart but dust. We torture ourselves over what we did wrong and over the horrifying fact that we could have even been wrong.
Failure is a word that my generation has been brought up to be so allergic to that it’s become a key driving factor in what makes us so unhappy. Our quest for perfection and refusal to embrace failure has trapped us in jobs and relationships that are not working for us, because to bail out would mean we had quit. And perfectionists don’t quit.
I used to think striving for perfection and failing to fail were good characteristics by which to run your life, relationship and career. Now, I can see what a damaging approach avoiding failure is.
I like reading biographies of people I admire, and the parts I like best are where they outline the many and repeated ways in which they fail. It would comfort me to know that some of the people whose careers I aspired to come close to had messed up so badly along the way. Their failure gave me hope, but still I didn’t allow myself to fail. They had the luxury of failing, I told myself. I didn’t.
It took me until last year and a streak of bad luck to accept that I was okay with failing. I achieved what I considered the pinnacle of my career with a feature article in a major publication. This had been a dream of mine, but the fallout cost me dearly in terms of my belief in myself when a backlash followed. It also derailed at least one professional relationship along the way. I was stunned. I’d gone after perfection and it hadn’t worked where I really needed it to. This was meant to be my foot in the door, instead the whole door had come off its hinges and slammed onto my toes.
Soon after that, I lost a job, crashed my car, lost my wallet (but thankfully got it back due to three kind strangers) and missed a flight for one of my son’s medical appointments.
Some of these were events that just happen in the course of life. Others were because I had failed. I’d simply not been good enough. Missing my son’s medical appointments especially was something I metaphorically beat myself up over until I was black and blue. “It’s unacceptable, it’s unacceptable, how could I do this!” I sobbed. No one could comfort me, because I could not embrace the fact that as a human being, I had failed despite my best intentions.
In the months afterwards, if there is one conclusion I came to, it’s that our inability to fail is ruining our lives.
So it’s time to unlearn the mantras that have been drummed into our heads.
Failing is a part of life, and so is giving up. It doesn’t make you less capable, it just means you have the maturity to acknowledge that you are human, you have flaws and sometimes even your best effort won’t get you what you aimed for.
Try your best, but be okay with failing. Fail. Fail often and in varied ways. Don’t be so petrified of not succeeding. Sometimes you won’t. Failure is an option. It always has been.
It may seem that life demands perfection of you. You must look perfect, be perfect, have the perfect Instagram account, know all the perfect angles of your face and body which hide all your flaws. You must have the perfect career trajectory, you must tick all the boxes, doing X will lead to doing Y.
Well, that’s all nonsense. Sometimes doing X will take you back to A. People will hurt you or forget you, you will look horrible in your wedding pictures or your colleagues will think you did a terrible job when you thought you had done fantastic. Maybe you’ll have published a book in your 30s like everyone else seems to be doing, maybe you won’t. You will forget your child’s appointments, both minor and important.
All of which is fine. Just take a deep breath, accept that you failed, and then carry on. Ditching the tyranny of perfection will turn out to be one of the healthiest things that you can do for yourself. Now and then, you should like yourself enough to be the miner that says “I’ve been at this for months now and nothing. You know, I’m done. I think I’ll go back into the sunshine.”
After all, if the lives of people who suddenly become very rich are anything to go by, you can’t be sure that the miner who got the treasure ended up happy.