I read ‘How to fail’ by Elizabeth Day last summer and it completely changed my perspective on failure.
In that she turned the light on herself discussing her own failures and what she learned from them, that’s theme of Failosophy, that there’s a life lesson in each failure.
“Most failures can teach us something meaningful about ourselves if we chose to listen and, besides, success tastes all the sweeter if you’ve fought for it.” Elizabeth Day
Failosophy, is less memoir and more handbook in which she discusses the seven failure principles that have come out of the podcast and live tour – I actually went to the live tour where she was joined by journalist Emma Barnett. For those unfamiliar with the podcast, Day invites a well-known guest on each week to discuss three failures, it is fascinating, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
In this she talks about forgetting your future self – it doesn’t exist – and doing away with the five-year plan. I was reminded of the proverb “We plan, God laughs”, we all probably spend far too much time imagining where we’re going to end up, planning and plotting only to see our best laid plans go awry.
What Day wants to do is change the discourse around failure, your life isn’t over if you fail at something, it could lead to success. Her witty and humane tone reminds us that no one is infallible, we’re all going to fail at something at some point in life and that’s okay, it’s actually pretty comforting.
“I hope you realise that failure does not have to alienating. In truth, it is the opposite: it connects us all. It makes us human”. Elizabeth Day
So, in the spirit of owning failure, I’ve been thinking about some of mine.
Failure to get a promotion……
Three years ago, I was pushing for a promotion at work.
This was part of the grand plan; the ultimate aim was to be group head of news. I’d been pushing and working towards it for two years, now was finally my chance and all I had to do was prove I could do it in an interview.
It was the worst interview I have ever given.
I’d done all the prep, I knew my stuff, the presentation was done and then the nerves kicked in, big time. My palms were sweaty, my voice started trembling, I was shaking and at the end of it, I knew I hadn’t done enough. I’d failed. Failed to get something I really, really wanted.
I had to wait four days for the confirmation, but I knew. When that call came late on a Friday afternoon, I was devastated – not helped by the fact I’d also not won an award the night before, it wasn’t a great 24 hours. I cried and cried and cried and then was furious with myself for fucking it up. Four days later I jumped on a plane to New York with my best friend.
I had a lot to think about. This was the life plan and it had gone wrong. I’d never contemplated it not panning out, I didn’t know what to do next, what did my career hold now, was news editor at local radio station as far as I was going?
I tried to react like I always do, slog my guts out and try to prove it was the wrong decision. It worked for a while, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d got everything out of my current role and pretty soon I’d be bored. Boredom would turn to resentment but still I had no idea what to do, until an email popped into my inbox…..about a news editor job for Global.
A year after what I perceived to be the biggest failure of my life I was doing my first report for a national radio station.
You see, while I thought it was the end of the world, things not going to plan, forced me to reassess what I actually wanted to do. That was run a news service, tell other people’s stories and report on big national events. That’s what I now get to do now.
In the three years since that blow, I’ve been given the chance to do some amazing things. Producing a 12-minute news feature which ended up on ‘This Morning’, exclusive interviews and live reports on national radio, that, to begin with terrified me but now excite me. I’ve been able to tell some great stories which, is why I wanted to do this crazy job in the first place. No, it isn’t perfect, yes, there are some days where it does my head in but actually it’s a lot closer to what I’d envisaged growing up.
I now realise, I don’t think I really wanted to be group head of news, I probably just wanted the title and extra money. I didn’t really want to be listening to other people’s news, coming up with strategies for growing other people’s services, I didn’t want to be taken away from the day to day job, I didn’t want to stop telling stories.
That failure actually did lead me to where I’m meant to be, it forced me out of my comfort zone and forced me into taking a leap to try something new.
“Being at peace with failure means I have very few regrets. Each time something has gone wrong, it has led me to where I am meant to be which is right here, right now […] I firmly cling to the belief that the universe is unfolding exactly as is intended and that although we, as imperfect humans, can’t hope to understand it all the time, life will generally teach us the lessons we need to learn if we are open to the possibility”. Elizabeth Day
It took me a long time to see it that way, what I did see as a huge failure actually turned into a success – I should probably thank the guy who dashed my five-year plan because it all worked out for the better.
Failure to say no….
I hate saying no, I have massive FOMO, I don’t like letting people down, it’s not a good combination.
I remember being in a counselling session freaking out about feeling like I had to see people even though I didn’t really want to, I just wanted a bit of time to myself. Then she said something that on reflection wasn’t ground-breaking but was at the time…..
“If you say no, what’s the worst that will happen?”
“Well, they might be upset”
“Stop trying to make everyone else happy. You don’t have to say yes to everything”.
I mean, it was a fairly good point, also an obvious point but one I had never considered. I’d spent my 20s saying yes to everything, every social event going, every meet up, every task, every request and a lot of the time it’d be stuff I didn’t really want to do. Pretty tiring at times.
Saying no to social events is fine, if I want to stay at home in my pjs watching crap tv and have an early night, I’ll do it. Sometimes it’s okay to be a bit selfish and take some time out, it’s needed and those who matter won’t be bothered by that.
Failure to stick to a hobby…
I’ve never stuck anything out.
- Playing the cornet – gave it up because it wasn’t ‘cool’ ridiculous
- Karate – gave it up at brown belt because I couldn’t be bothered with training twice a week as a teenager.
- Swimming – see karate and I was painfully slow.
- Netball – wasn’t ‘cool’ didn’t want to go to practise every lunch time.
- Learning guitar – got bored quickly because I didn’t immediately become Slash
- Learning the drums – wasn’t immediately John Bonham
- Running – did a couple of 10ks fell out the habit of running every morning
- Baking – a fad circa December 2011, made fudge, shortbread, mince pies and a Christmas cake (despite not knowing a single soul who likes Christmas cake) realised baking is expensive and time consuming haven’t baked since.
- RAYS – Rossendale amateur youth society was a brother in Joseph, in the Chorus for Mother Goose and quit during rehearsals for Bugsy Malone – again it wasn’t ‘cool’. I regret that decision I missed out on custard pie fights.
There’s a flavour of some of the things I’ve tried and given up on, fact this blog is still going is an achievement.
I’ve had plenty of grand ideas, I was adamant I was taking up surfing after coming back from Bali, haven’t looked into it once. Horse riding, I was absolutely going to continue this after learning for a work feature, I’ve done it once since, in Cuba. It’s quite a varied list and though I might not do any of these hobbies anymore – I’ll pretty much have a bash at anything and make a decision whether or not it’s for me, I can still do these things and still have these skills to some extent.
There’s a common theme, I tended to quit things because I was bothered about what people thought or because they were hard work. It does annoy me that in the past I’ve cared too much about what people think, and that that has led to me quitting things I actually enjoyed. I liked being in the brass band, I enjoyed playing netball and RAYS was actually fun. I now couldn’t care less, what people think of me, I don’t need acceptance and I’m much more comfortable doing things I enjoy regardless of what it looks like, that’s probably something that comes to us all with age.
There’s been many, many, many, failures – driving test (I had six of them), maths (3 attempts at GCSE), standing up for myself, telling people to fuck off, keeping in touch with people, stopping smoking, failing to complete decorating my bedroom.
Passing my driving test did taste sweet, I thought I’d never pass at one point. I’m more comfortable standing up for myself and I have absolutely no qualms when it comes to telling people where to go.
There is a lot to learn from things going wrong, Elizabeth Day reminds of that with warmth and humour, it’s about retraining your brain to accept your flaws and mistakes and accepting that our best laid plans don’t always work out, it’s how we react that matters.
Journalist, writer, traveller, music lover, collector of hats, news addict, bookworm