Failure is (Not) An Option

25 Nov 2011

Dreams shattered? Your biggest stuff-up might be the best thing that ever happened to you, says Sarah Gibson

It’s such a bleak, tragic, final-sounding word, isn’t it? In fact, failure is the kind of word that a woman like Amy Chua probably refuses to recognise even exists. You might not know of Chua. She’s a Yale law professor whose recent book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (Dhs55, has caused a global uproar with its tales of strict, unbending, totally over-thetop parenting in the Chinese tradition. “Chinese mothers,” she writes, “can say to their daughters, ‘Hey fatty – lose some weight’.” Or how about this one: “The solution to substandard performance is always to excoriate, punish and shame the child.” It sounds like parody, but by all accounts, Chua is serious. Failure in her presence is, in any form, simply not an option.

Millions have expressed their dismay at Chua’s proclamations of tough love, but I reckon the reason her book struck such a nerve – and immediately shot up the bestseller lists – is because we secretly long for a world as orderly and blooper-free as the one she apparently maintains in her own home. When I asked my usual subjects – friends, colleagues, strangers in bars – about their own failures, my questions were met with uncharacteristic (and frankly, rather unhelpful) silence. I know for a fact it’s not because their lives had been magically untouched by collapse. These were the same people who, in the name of anecdotal research, had enthusiastically volunteered the most intimate and ugly details of their lives to me a hundred times before. Yet when I pursued stories about the crises of their own creation? I got nothing. An awkward cough, the sound of crickets at night… I may have even spied a tumbleweed rolling past.

It’s a tough ask. No one likes to fail and certainly no one likes to relive it. And modern culture – with its focus on success and selfesteem – reinforces that phobia. Perhaps not as manically as Chua, but… think back to all the love heaped on your first clunky school projects, or the gushy e-mails that make the rounds when we get promotions at work. In being so fixated on achievement – no matter how insignificant it may actually be – does our attitude towards failure make what is merely unpleasant, completely unbearable? And in seeking too diligently to avoid the dreaded F-word, are we denying ourselves the chance to see the upside of our downfalls?

Terry Robson wrote Failure Is An Option: How Setbacks Breed Successes (Dhs133, borders. and as that title suggests, he prefers to fl y in the face of all those fist-pumping slogans that now dominate political campaigns and pop off the covers of those cheesy mini-books on sale at the local gift store cash register. Robson gathered perspectives from Christianity, Buddhism, psychology, coaching theory and a bunch of brave celebrities (veterans of some pretty public belly flops) to extol the virtues of failure.

Wait, what? Here’s his explanation: “Failure is feedback from life. Failure is what you perceive it to be. It depends on expectation.” As such, Robson invites us to reassess success. Oh, success is sexy, for sure. But like failure, he writes, “Success is not absolute… success is only meaningful in terms of what you value… success, too, will pass.”

One of the ways many of us come to terms with failure is by framing it as fate’s unpopular delivery boy. It can be a very healthy way to view our stuff-ups. Think about it: how many times have we emerged from failure to stumble, somehow, into a far better situation? It happens in love and work every day.

The thing is, sometimes that philosophical reprocessing can only come with hindsight – we see where the failure fits into the tapestry of our lives long after the event (of course, a little bit of good luck post-failure helps.) Still, not every failure nudges us neatly towards success. There are other gifts it can bestow, even when there’s no obvious “right” path that’s been brightened by it. If we can observe the attendant pain of failure and make room for it, we learn humility – we’re forced to understand we’re a small and fallible part of a much bigger universe and that we can’t control everything, no matter how big our egos feel about that. As one of Robson’s subjects, writer and speaker Ruth Ostrow beautifully put it, her crisis was a “nervous breakthrough” that provided her with an opportunity to understand “what I really want, what is meaningful and what is real”.

Ostrow discovered that what matters is not the outcome, but the intention with which you “do what you do”. Failure prompts us to ask ourselves the important questions that help us to grow as human beings: what did I learn from this? What will I do differently?

Failure can also hone resilience and perseverance. In response to my now desperate entreaties for material, friend, author and screenwriter Gemma Burgess eventually wrote back – kind of – via her blog. Her bottom line: failure is only failure if it prompts you to throw in the towel. “I would happily say I’ve messed up in my life, many, many times, but I’d never say I’d failed. And sometimes, my mess-ups result in a high-five. Success takes a shedload of work… and the ability to bounce back and keep trying when things go wrong.” Burgess echoes Robson’s view. Failure depends on perception. Do we need to see it as proof of our hopelessness? Is it helpful to do so? How about failure as information? Or something that tells us we need to persist, tweak our goals or change tack?

In this way, failure becomes a safer, inevitable part of living with vitality – and that’s one of the messages behind an emerging therapeutic activity gathering serious credibility among psychologists. It’s called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and under this approach, practitioner and trainer Dr Russ Harris encourages clients to build resilience by accepting bad feelings, like the ones we experience when we strive and fail, rather than putting our energy into avoiding these feelings, if doing so would rob us of connection with what we value. This allows people to lead richer, fuller and more meaningful lives, consistently recommitting to their important goals by dusting themselves off and continuing to take action, even when they are feeling discouraged, embarrassed or regretful.

Nowhere is there a greater need for this kind of emotional collagen, perhaps, than for those living in the public eye. Mikey Robins, comedian and TV and radio personality, explains to Robson that his 20-year media career has involved routines that have flopped, cruel critics, “hiatus horrors” and, oh yes, the odd brutal axing. And yes, he has learned to accept that this is the entertainer’s deal, part of pursuing his version of a meaningful life.

I’d bet any money that Robins doesn’t have an inherently thicker skin than the next person. But it’s because he values what he does that he accepts the flipside of adoration – risk, exposure, censure – and recommits to it every time, rather than retreating to a safer and far less fulfilling day job off air. As he acknowledges to Robson, with all these slings and arrows, his entertainment career is “actually a lovely way to make a living”.

This acceptance and commitment approach holds for the non-creatives among us too, juggling kids and study (and sometimes neglecting both), or pursuing an exciting entrepreneurial venture. If we truly value a goal, we should see failure along the way not as an absolute, but rather as a strategy that just hasn’t worked.

Embracing failure is a challenge not just for individuals, but businesses and organisations, too. And being receptive to it can spawn innovation. Paradoxically, it may even present a strategic advantage. Jenny Hartland, 36, is a Dubai account manager who loves her work, but in particular, appreciates the attitude her boss has toward projects that implode. “My manager’s really passionate about us trying new things, new ways of developing relationships with clients, all kinds of outside-the-box stuff. And if it doesn’t work, or even if the client’s put off in the end, my boss is completely supportive. His whole philosophy is that if we’re afraid of failing, we won’t be bold, we won’t develop, we might miss out on opportunities and, more than that, we could lose interest in our work. My day-to-day could feel like a grind but it never does. Friends of mine who work in the same industry are constantly ‘over it’. I never feel like that.”

This is not to say that taking crazy risks is clever. Or that a continuous string of catastrophes should be encouraged with gusto. Plenty of mistakes are unacceptable and shouldn’t be applauded – failures of justice, of governance, ethical or moral shortcomings.

And of course, there are wonderful benefits – not just to individuals and bank balances, but also to society – when we excel. But how often is the trajectory to excellence a smooth arc? Sifting through my own back catalogue of stuff-ups, I can’t help but squirm. I’m not talking about eating-my-body-weight-in-hummus-onmy- second-day-of-a-diet kinds of undoings. I’m talking the epic, cheek-burning, sleep-robbing, fl inching-at-the-thought failures. Would I trade them in for a flawless record? And with it the bigger life, the lessons learned? Heck, no.

Perhaps Burgess sums it up best: “I say we should embrace our failures. If nothing ever happened to us, we’d be so boring… and so bored.”