Why learning to fail is the key to success
Kate Graham explores why messing up could be the best thing you ever do
With a sinking heart, Jessica knew the job interview wasn’t going well.
Midway through her presentation, still foggy headed from staying up with her sick daughter the night before, the political consultant could feel her confidence slipping away.
“I managed to keep going, even though I knew I hadn’t prepared enough,” she says. “But the next day, I was mortified to hear the damning feedback they’d given to the recruitment consultant. They said that while I had the quantity — the years of experience — I lacked the quality. It was really quite cutting.”
Her confidence was damaged badly. “I gave up on the job search and stayed in a position I’d outgrown. Even when my boss left and I knew I could easily have done that job, I didn’t go for it.”
Many of us have a failure horror story, be it a relationship rejection or exam blunder, that has the power to make us shiver, however long ago it happened. But even without a dramatic failure moment, just the fear of it can make a profound impact on our lives.
For me, it has meant steering clear of the things I thought I couldn’t succeed at. During school, it was anything to do with numbers. At university, I wouldn’t have dreamt of trying out for a sports team. Why put myself in a position to fail — publicly? I’ve even congratulated myself on it. Divide an uncertain world into the things I can and can’t do, stick firmly in my lane and I’m both protected and can project success. Win-win.
Except now I watch my daughters. My one-year-old falls 100 times a day and bounces back up and my three-year-old happily misses the mark at everything from French to swimming.
At 39, I want to know their secret, not least because, as they grow up, I want to help them preserve that spirit. I don’t want them to follow in my failure-fearing footsteps.
Luckily, in 2019, learning to train your failure muscle, just as you would your yoga core, is a hot topic. There are the books and podcasts to prove it — and fashion ranges, too.
This season, the words ‘Fail Better’ are emblazoned on Jane Carr’s luxury scarves, inspired by Samuel Beckett’s words, ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’
Across the globe, people are unpicking our obsession with perfection, looking at what lies at the heart of our dread of failing and trying to master failing ‘well’. The School of Life, dedicated to developing emotional intelligence via workshops and events, found its ‘How to Fail’ class was so popular in London, it then launched it in Amsterdam, Taipei, Sydney, Melbourne and Antwerp.
More than 700,000 people have tuned into Elizabeth Day’s hit podcast How to Fail, featuring everyone from Lily Allen to Mishal Husain talking about their experiences of missing the mark, which evolved into the book How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong, published this spring. And it’s not the only tome on the failure bookshelf. Reshma Saujani’s book, Brave, Not Perfect, became an international bestseller back in February, and Karen Rinaldi’s It’s Great to Suck at Something, also came out in spring.
Caught up in what she calls ‘aspirational psychosis’, Rinaldi believes that constantly chasing the impossible is getting us nowhere. She highlights the importance of admitting our defeats and giving ourselves the freedom to fail.
The good is that failure training works for children and adults. Start, says Rinaldi, by doing something with passion, but no pressure. “If we’re afraid to fail, we keep opportunities for growth, love and fulfilment out of reach.
“Pick something you’ve always longed to do — anything that’s appealed but which you stopped yourself doing by telling yourself, ‘Oh, I will never be any good at that…’ By learning something new and practising something you love without the pressure of having to master it, you’ll get acquainted with failure. This will help when you fail at other things.”
It may seem irrelevant but language also matters, says Saujani. By adding the word ‘yet’ to a statement of a perceived failure, you transform it into a temporary setback. (‘I’m just no good at doing my accounts — yet.’) It’s a small mental shift but a powerful one.
If that sounds easily doable, this next piece of advice may need a deep breath. Saujani advises to ask for ‘cold, hard, unadulterated feedback’ when you know that you missed the mark.
And seek that feedback everywhere: work, relationships, friendships. It’s a form of radical exposure therapy, she explains, and is the best shortcut to realising that critical feedback doesn’t hurt nearly as much as you fear it does.
When you’ve gathered that feedback, don’t keep it all to yourself. Saujani believes that sharing failures, rather, is a good modus operandi if you want to become a happier loser, whether that’s being more open with friends, or even throwing a ‘failure party’.
This idea of making a public declaration of failure chimes with a trend in the academic world, for people to create and share a ‘CV of failures’. In 2016, Johannes Haushofer, professor of psychology at Princeton, wrote a CV listing every degree programme he’d failed to get into, each award he’d missed and every job he didn’t secure.
Counsellor Amy Hutson says it went viral because he’s seen as a success in his field. It was a world away from the glossy image successful people project about themselves (what Rinaldi calls the ‘performative mode’, fed, in part, by those finely curated Instagram accounts). His CV reminds us that behind every success are many missteps.
Creating one for yourself can be powerful, says Hutson, and if sharing feels a step too far, try picking up a pen in private.
Psychologist James W Pennebaker has explored the power of expressive writing to learn from negative experiences. He recommends using prompts to explore both the positive aspects of failure (‘Why it’s good I didn’t get the job…’) and the negative (‘Why it’s bad I didn’t get the job…’). This is key, explains Hutson, as it’s important to process painful aspects of that failure.
This little-and-often strategy is vital, says Saujani. We have to keep practising our bravery every day, training our brains, so when we hit those inevitable bumps in the road, we’re ready to flex our failure muscle.