I can still hear the gasp.
Maybe I imagined it. Maybe some of my friends really did get a major surprise. Maybe I was just in shock. I know one thing for sure: my stomach dropped as I heard my name called out as the Deputy Head Boy at my High School. I had campaigned long and hard to give myself what I believed was an extremely good shot at the top student leadership position in our school. The disappointment at hearing my name called out in second place was huge. I had given my all and failed to get the position I wanted so badly. I shed a few tears, and struggled to come to terms with the way I had failed to achieve my goal.
Failure is a tricky thing. Both humbling, crushing and disappointing, it’s not something we like to focus on. In all areas of my life, I find people talking about the “pathway to success” and how we can avoid failure at all costs. Failure is considered so negative, that we’ve come to use other words to describe it: “not yet competent” or “needs improvement” are often thrown around in our education system when someone doesn’t meet a required standard. It’s possible for children to grow up never getting told to their face that they’ve failed, even when it might be totally obvious! The fear of failure can lead us to not try new things, so as to avoid the possibility of not “getting it right”.
Meet the Robinsons is a great movie that deals with the subject of failure in an up-front and frank matter. The movie’s tag-line of “keep moving forward” is fun, and there’s a lot of truth in it. I used to song lead a lot in church, and at first, when something would go wrong I would get extremely dejected, beating myself up for not transitioning between songs right, or having a string break. Over a period of ten years I had to learn that mistakes are ok – sometimes a service really goes off, and other times it just doesn’t quite click, and sometimes things just suck. “Keep moving forward” is always so applicable in music, and I had to learn from my mistakes and give it another go.
Because the thing is, I’ve learnt more from my failures than I ever have from my successes. I’m sure we can all relate to the introspection we fall into when we don’t achieve something we aim for. When we succeed, we look for things that could be improved for next time, but the failure to achieve something tends to bring about a deeper level of self-reflection. As I’ve grown and learnt that it’s ok to fail, I’ve become more comfortable with giving things a go, even if they don’t turn out as I’d hoped. I often come back to the fact that many people who are now successful in finance, business and other areas have at one stage been bankrupt. These people choose not to let failure define them, but to keep learning and trying.
The fact is that giving it a go is the first step to success, and failure is a great way to learn. I wish that I could have told myself as a teenager to not be so hard on myself when things didn’t go exactly according to plan. I would look at the extraordinary success stories we see – people like Sir Richard Branson, Bill Gates or Helen Clark, and feel like I could never be them. But in reality, every time I made a mistake and chose to learn from my failure, I was taking a step towards greater success in the future – and that’s still true today – I keep trying, but now I keep learning and focusing on the future. I keep moving forward.
One last thing that I remember clearly from that night back in high school was my mother’s advice when I was standing there in tears after I got home: “Ian, life is full of also-rans“. Yes, it’s true – life is indeed full of people who don’t achieve the top place. For someone to come in first, many have to come in after that. But in failure, there is freedom, too. Freedom to reflect on how to do it better. Freedom to reflect on what went wrong. And freedom to find hope in the midst of a difficult situation, to build character, and to plan for how to avoid the same mistakes in the future. There’s a camaraderie to be found in failure, a place where all are welcome to come and talk through their mistakes – failure lacks the exclusivity of success, and should draw us nearer to one another – because even thought many people know success, all of us know failure.
So I’m making my mind up to learn from my mistakes today, because life is full of also-rans, and I’m proud to be a part of the race.