Failure: What can we learn from failing?

It’s true that you can learn much more from failure than from success, and it’s true that every successful person went through a series of failures before reaching the top, but still it’s very difficult to deal with.

So what can we learn from failing?

Thanks to the following guests for participating:

Comedian, TV presenter, and co-host of the Blank podcast and co-author of the book Blank Jim Daly, who spoke to me in depth this week.

Parenting teenagers expert and psychologist Angela Karanja

Creative genius consultant, artist and author Mandy Nicholson

Here are some of the resources from the show:

Award-winning author and journalist Elizabeth Day explains how failure can teach us lessons we would never otherwise have understood.

Books looked at this week:

Giles Paley-Phillips and Jim Daly: Blank: Why It’s Fine to Falter and Fail, and How to Pick Yourself Up Again

Elizabeth Day: How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong

PS. I do not receive commission for reviewing books and talks.

Transcription

Exploring how we can master ourselves by looking at how experts say it is possible with your host Suswati Basu.

Intro music

Welcome to episode 32 of How To Be…with me Suswati as your timid presenter, guiding you through life’s tricky skills by taking this learning journey with you.

Let’s face it. We all make mistakes.

Most of us know that failure is a reality of life, and at some level, we understand that it actually helps us grow. Intellectually, we even acknowledge that the greatest achievers — past and present — also routinely experienced colossal failures. But it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.

So how do we deal with failure?

Here is creative genius consultant, artist and author Mandy Nicholson on her views.

MANDY NICHOLSON

Our first book is from comedian, TV presenter, and co-host of the BLANK podcast Jim Daly and his award-winning co-author and host Giles Paley-Phillips with their book Blank: Why It’s Fine to Falter and Fail, and How to Pick Yourself Up Again. Daly spoke to me this week and shared his thoughts on the subject. Find the full interview on www.howtobe247.com and here is a preview.

JIM DALY

The book describes difficult blank moments that everyone faces sometimes. Whether in your personal life, career, relationship, or in a public situation, writer’s block, social anxiety, imposter syndrome, being off-form or having an identity crisis, this can affect anyone at any time.

Public failure can be humiliating for example because you’re very exposed in that situation. However, the authors say that one thing stands out about public failure: it is nearly always in our own heads that we build these moments up, and we are the ones who inflict the most punishment on ourselves.

Apparently the roots of this kind of self-imposed punishment can be seen throughout history. In the Middle Ages, people would seek to cleanse themselves of diseases through public whippings – and this sentiment remains today, it’s just that the method and equipment we use have evolved.

And Daly and Paley-Phillips draw a parallel with what happens during a lot of social-media shaming – it’s brutal because the people doing it are doing it in the name of morality. Of course, not all social-media shamings are the same – sometimes somebody has done something really bad and they need to be made an example of, but quite often it’s just some stupid nothing thing that people are turning into something huge.

Failure in all its forms is an inevitable part of life, and once you realise this, you can start the process of developing a more positive attitude towards it –by seeing failure as an opportunity, a moment to take a step forward rather than back. Sometimes we need these public failures and visible mistakes, however gut-wrenching they may be, to snap us awake and sort us out. To force us to learn some cold hard truths – and quickly.

And even the most successful people have their own moments of public failure – and while those moments play a part in who they are, those failures do not define them.

Lexicographer Susie Dent, from the gameshow Countdown told them vulnerability is part of life and it isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so she had decided not to catastrophise all the time, and to remind herself that people have their own things going on and won’t be spending nearly as much time thinking about her bad moments as she does.

If you think of this as three concentric circles, smallest circle being in the middle, is what’s within your control; then you have the second circle, which is things in your influence; and the outer circle contains all the things that are out of your control. If it’s out of your control, there’s no point wasting time worrying about it; if it’s within your influence, then there’s a point to which you can worry about it, but not too much; and if it’s within your control, it’s down to you.

You don’t want to just brush past it, so you could give yourself 24 hours to feel bad about it. This is part of the process. But by the next day, you should focus on what you could do next time to avoid that failure, and ensure you’re not making the same mistake again.

Then it comes to Imposter Syndrome. Imposter syndrome was first identified in the 1970s by psychologists Pauline Rose Clance and Suzanne Imes, who theorised that, at times, we believe we are inadequate and incompetent, despite evidence that indicates quite the opposite to be true.

However, in the 1990s, sociologist Harry Collins developed a theory dubbed ‘interactional expertise’. This lies between formal educational knowledge and skills developed on the job —this is the ability to converse expertly about a practical skill, but never actually practicing it but it is learned through linguistic socialisation ie. picking it up from others. It turns out when Collins tried to pass off as a physicist in an experiment, through years of interactions with other physicists, he was able to convince two judges and baffle seven others that he was indeed one.

What Collins’s experiments go to show is that by talking to and interacting with our peers and mentors, we can help ourselves feel better about our level of knowledge and skill.

The authors say thus imposter syndrome is intrinsically linked to public failure, in that we never really fail as badly as we think, and that other people don’t see us as imposters in the way that we see ourselves – in fact, they’re usually too wrapped up in their own issues to notice or care what we’re doing.

In terms of failing in being creative, psychologist Fiona Murden told the guys that even for the most prolific creative people, who from the outside seem to be able to turn creativity on and off at will, it actually takes them hours and hours to come up with a single line. People only ever see the end result, but the reality is not like that at all.

She said that there was a piece of research carried out in Chile on schoolchildren, and it showed that the children that were able to consciously switch in and out of daydreaming were also able to be more
creative. Creativity all comes from curiosity and that it doesn’t really ever end.

While Daly is now a comedian, he says even though he felt like he didn’t achieve what he wanted in school, he is now doing what makes him happy. All those subjects he disliked did push him towards knowing what he doesn’t like; this in turn pushed him towards making those things he does like into his job.

And he did learn something: the basics of writing; deadlines pushes him to get something done; working alongside others is something he enjoys from time to time. In the end they say life is about exploring the world, and discovering things about yourself as you go.

Sometimes we can avoid failure through the simplest of acts such as switching off our brains. If we can manage to truly switch off from time to time, our brains will function better, and we can create better things and be better people.

Our final book is from bestselling author and podcast host Elizabeth Day who hosts the podcast How To Fail With Elizabeth Day. Her book How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong takes us through the formative events of her life, that some could call failures. Here she is speaking to the Royal society of Arts.

ELIZABETH DAY

When failing in the moment, it can often be painful – whether it’s a relationship falling apart, a job going down the tubes, or an important exam being flunked. Yet, it may well be that these wrong turns will eventually prove to be the right turns all along.

For example, she says failing at fitting in can teach you how to be resilient and prepare you for the future. Though Day was born in England, her family moved to Northern Ireland when her father took a job at a hospital near the town of Derry. Since this was during the Troubles, the English were seen as the “hated occupiers,” and Day’s accent was enough to make her fellow students dislike her.

While failing to fit in was a terrible experience, it led Day to learn some beneficial skills. By keeping quiet, Day became an adept observer of human behavior, a skill that came in handy later in her career as a journalist and novelist.

When Day failed her driving test, she approached the second test with more confidence and feeling she had nothing to lose. As a result, she not only aced the test, she also learned that test scores are often arbitrary and kind of depends on who is judging on the day.

Just like for many, her 20’s were challenging especially as it is a transitional period between adolescence and adulthood. Author David Nicholls suggests at this time there are often failures, and that’s perfectly fine. In fact, this decade is perfect for trying things out, failing and doing something else.

Day was so eager to be an adult, that she went straight from school into a job and then in a marriage. She would eventually realize that there was no need to rush and that she needed to spend less time worrying about getting things right and more time reflecting on what it was she really wanted.

It turns out failing at relationships and dating can make you more knowledgeable about yourself. Of course, no one wants to go through a break-up or a divorce, but Day needed to experience both of these to find her own voice and figure out what was needed for her to be fulfilled in life.

After her divorce, she stayed in Los Angeles for three months. Putting distance between herself and her failed marriage allowed her to separate herself from her anxieties, meet new people and gain new perspectives. She realized that her past relationships were all about her desire for safety and trying to complete herself through other people.

Day eventually found gratitude for all of her failed relationships since each one helped her to be clearer about who she was and to find her own voice. Online dating in her 30s proved to be a minefield, and it turned out that it doesn’t provide much chance to experience failure and what she wanted.

And while failed relationships can make a person want to shut down, Day also learned that it’s important to stay open and positive about yourself amid a painful heartbreak. It may sound clichéd to think that “it’s their loss” when you break up with someone, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

My partner says this all the time but only the rich and famous can live up to celebrity standards and Day feels the same. When she visited Gwyneth Paltrow’s online Goop empire’s recommended places for healthy spa and vegan meals, she realised only the wealthiest 1 percent could have enough disposable income and free time to maintain a lifestyle that was so focused on her image that it left little time for anything else.

Day has also had her fair share of friendship failures. In her twenties, she made the mistake of being judgemental and offering unsolicited advice instead of showing love and support to a friend who was going through a difficult time. But she learned her lesson and now tries harder to be receptive, supportive and kind.

What’s more, Day has also learned that friendships can be even more rewarding than romantic relationships. Even though she separated from a close friend at a young age, she knows that this isn’t something to take personally. Sometimes being a friend means wishing someone the best as they move on to the next phase in their life.

Even though Day feels it is painful that she is missing out on having children, she believes it can be overcome. Day had to go through IVF and after two unsuccessful cycles, she had to come to terms with the fact that she may never have a child of her own. But being “childless” isn’t the most tragic event that could befall a person. Indeed, more women are choosing to follow childless paths that are freeing and just as fulfilling.

And along with more women choosing not to have kids, there’s also been a change in the way women are dealing with their anger. For a long time, whenever a woman displayed anger, it was taken as some sort of character defect on their part. They were treated as irrational, laughable or even dangerous. At one point in history, angry women were even burned at the stake as witches.

Fortunately, this has been changing recently, especially in the wake of the Me Too movement that followed the allegations of sexual abuse by powerful men – including, most notably, the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. As they read about the incidents involving men like Weinstein, women all over the world came forward with their own experiences, and it finally felt like it was OK to be angry. Society is shifting, and we can get closer to a healthy balance between empathy and anger.

Failing at success isn’t a contradiction, it’s a common occurrence that teaches us that material things aren’t what’s important. If people aren’t happy with fame and money, maybe we’re putting too much value on such things?

Day benefited from therapy and the ability it gives you to separate yourself from negative thinking. She also became happier with her work, and the idea of being a successful writer. She achieved this by focusing less on the critics and more on her own idea of success – which is whether she told her story as honestly as she could.

So when you look at your failures, remember that ultimately, whether an experience is a success or failure is totally up to you. As the Taoist philosophers say, every event has the capacity to be both. Which way it goes is completely up to you and your reaction.

So to sum up:

Daly and Paley-Phillips say in Blank that sometimes asking the question ‘Why have I failed?’ can go some way towards working out what not to do in the future. They’ve put together a simple but sage list designed to help soothe anyone who might be having their own difficult moment. It includes ideas and steps you can adopt at any time to help you regroup and reset.
1 Practise self-compassion.
2 Lean in – when gently turning towards pain, people report that they
experience less of it, and their resistance usually decreases.
3 Create a positive mantra for yourself and use it regularly.
4 Visualise your happy place.
5 Create a gratitude group on WhatsApp and share your thoughts.
6 Meditate.
7 Reach out to friends and family you haven’t seen in a while.
8 Take a vacation from social media.
9 Break whatever is making you have a blank moment into smaller,
more manageable chunks.
10 Say whatever is blanking you out loud, even if no one is there –
especially if no one is there.
11 Journal! Write down whatever is worrying you or holding you back,
even if you never read it again.
12 Breathe!
13 Do some Lego or a jigsaw puzzle – immerse yourself in it and turn
your brain off from everything else.
14 Write a feasible to-do list at the start of the day.
15 Remind yourself that nothing is ever wasted.

And Day says in How To Fail that when things go wrong, whether it involves school, friends, a romantic relationship or a job, we can easily get caught up in the downside of the problem instead of what we learn. But with the benefit of hindsight, we can often see that failures have taught us some of our most important lessons in life. When we fail to fit in, we can learn to be independent and resilient. Failed relationships can help us understand who we are and what we really want. And failure to meet society’s expectations can teach us that those expectations are impossible and not worth the effort to begin with. In the end, how we react and learn from these experiences is how we can turn any supposed failure into a resounding success.

I asked my friends on Clubhouse and Twitter Spaces this week about failure and they said something incredibly important. If we all succeeded in everything, then we wouldn’t have any variety. Sometimes we’re just meant to fail so someone else can do it better.

On the final note, here is parenting teenagers expert and psychologist Angela Karanja on failure. And if you enjoyed this please hit subscribe!

ANGELA KARANJA

Published by suswatibasu

Suswati Basu is a writer, journalist, producer and feminist activist residing in London. She has written for the Guardian, Huffington Post and the F-Word blogs, and has worked for various media outlets such as the BBC, Channel 4 and for ITV News/ITN. She currently works as a senior intelligence expert.

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