The art of failure
What was the last thing you failed at? And how are you feeling about that right now?
Self-help literature attempts to present failure as something more positive.
Terms used might be:
- steep learning curve
- pushing the envelope
- out of your comfort zone.
To some these terms are awful. In the Alan Bennett film ‘The Lady in the Van’, the social worker suggests Alan is on a ‘steep learning curve’ and Alan claims to have never been on a learning curve in his life!
The idea of the self-help terms, cringe-worthy as they may be, is to change the human mindset from seeing failure as something ‘bad’. It is in fact a necessary side-effect of living creatively or living adventurously. It is something young children, during their often rapid developmental progress, have to negotiate all the time: learning to walk involves falling down.
As we grow older there is a tendency to avoid situations which involve failing, as we may regard this as humiliating, a step-backwards or just plain painful. Perhaps we have job prospects, status or reputation we feel the need to protect.
However, in a life without failure the path we are treading becomes narrow, familiar and boring. Or excessively driven like in the film ‘Whiplash’ where the protagonist allows the pursuit of success to wipe out the other aspects of his life: his relationship, his own well-being. This leads to a musician on the same programme committing suicide.
So where do we find balance and enough capacity to tolerate failure to live a rich and varied life -- to fully experience life?
As adults we may well need support with this -- perhaps the encouragement of a professional to help us see what avenues we have been cutting off for ourselves since childhood. We may want therapy to help us look at past unprocessed failures that we are still carrying around with us, dragging us down. We may need persuading that the sweaty palms and increased heart-rate of a risk scenario are something to be embraced.
Western Capitalist culture may define failure as bad, even though the rewards of experiencing and moving forward from failure may be significant. Dropbox was reputedly a response to someone forgetting their flash drive and not having access to important files. The Dyson bagless hoover using cyclonic separation a response to an unsatisfactory old-style bagged hoovering experience by James Dyson. ‘Creative success requires creative failure,’ Julia Cameron writes in her bestselling book ‘The Artist’s Way’.
Mindfulness can help, in that it is about paying attention to our responses to situations without being attached to them. Mindfulness can offer a non-judgemental container for our failures. But, perhaps most of all, we need to simply re-frame them in our experience and instead of viewing failure as something bad, we need to view it as a good sign that we are living life to the full.
Our failure may be the seed of our next great adventure.
About the author
Sara Todd works at New Road Psychotherapy Centre where she manages a collective practice of 20 counsellors and psychotherapists. She is a qualified integrative counsellor with an interest in creative forms of therapy. She is also a novelist.
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