Embrace failure, it can be life’s best guide

There will be tens of thousands of A-level students this weekend for which their exam results were quietly disappointing. Some will be looking for a university place through “clearing”; some debating whether to have another bash at it next year; others wondering whether university is for them at all. For most, though, comes an end to the hopes with which they’d awoken on Thursday morning. This column is for them.

But it’s for the victors too because success is only a postponement. In the end we almost all fail, routinely and repeatedly, quietly or conspicuously; and failure, properly handled, is one of the best teachers life can send us: a teacher and friend.

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again” was always terrible advice. The dreary adage may have worked for the patient Scottish spider that Robert the Bruce watched attempting its web before his victory at Bannockburn, but we are not spiders. Repeat the old lie if that comforts you, but listen down the centuries for the banging of a million heads against a million brick walls. Trying repeatedly does not usually lead to success.

Failure is telling us something, and you should notice when it gets insistent. If at first you don’t succeed, give it another try if you like. Give it two more tries if you must. But if you still don’t succeed, get the message. Try something different; somewhere different; someone different.

I have failed at one university degree and four separate careers in my life so far: and I didn’t stick at any of them. My fifth start — this one — was not embarked upon until I was 39. Plans A, B, C and D crumbled to dust decades ago and I’m neither a professor of jurisprudence, governor of a British colony, ambassador in Washington nor a leading member of a Tory cabinet. But what the heck! Plan E is proving a blast.

In not only my own experience but my observation of others too, I’ve seen the power of failure to redirect a life. It’s my belief that a version of Darwin’s theory of evolution can be applied not only across many generations of the same species, but to a single individual within that person’s own lifetime. Failure weeds out what doesn’t work to give space, air and light to what does. Apply that within one life — your own — and you will see the redeeming power of failure, if only an individual will recognize and respond to it with sufficient ruthlessness. Life is short. Be ready to junk what isn’t working.

As a child I wanted to be good at ball games but soon found that in competition with my age cohort my co-ordination was well below average. The games section of school reports said “must try harder at football”; I drew the opposite conclusion, in time discovering that my forte was physical stamina. I became a good long-distance runner.

I wanted to be good at drawing, like my younger brother, Roger, but from the earliest age his penciled figures looked like people, mine like sticks. I gave up on art. Roger is still an artist. He’s a scientist too, quickly grasping the theory, numeracy and visualization that go with science. I struggled. Calculus defeated me. What for Roger was a hillock proved for me a mountain. I turned back at base camp, thank God.

I wanted to be a musician so my father bought me a trumpet. I tried and tried again; but saw (or heard) there was no latent talent here waiting to be unlocked, and gave up. I wanted to be an actor but found I could only play myself. Another dream relented of.

And slowly, very slowly, as door after door closed, it became clearer which remained open.

The Americans, who always take things a little too far, are nevertheless on to something when, as is the case with Silicon Valley these days, they all but fetishise failure. “Fail fast, fail often,” has become a mantra there. F***up Nights (F.U.N.) have been established as popular get-togethers where professionals reflect on their failures. Their annual FailCon conference does this on a bigger scale.

Talking about your failures has become a kind of boast among them, but that’s where they may miss the most important point of all: failing within a field of endeavor isn’t useful only to help answer the question “how can I do this better?” it may prompt a bigger question: “should I be doing this at all?”

Two teachers, I believe, guide us to our best destinies. The first is certainly failure — and, yes, there’s necessarily something negative about licking our wounds; but there’s nothing bleak about spotting that we have no gift for the tightrope if the observation is briskly followed by the decision not to be an acrobat.

The second is the opinion of others, not ourselves, about our strengths. Through your life, Mr. or Ms Disappointed A-level Examinee, you’ll begin to notice a pattern to such compliments as you do receive. The things for which other people tell you have (say) a good eye, a steady hand, a strong arm, a quick brain, sharp recollection, a kind heart or a ready tongue. It did finally occur to me, after decades of not quite cutting the mustard had passed, that though I might consider myself a great brain, the only things I did that reliably attracted favorable notice were talking and writing: both branches more of performance than of intellectual analysis.

It was more than a year before I was commended for anything at all as a 25-year-old diplomatic service trainee, and it felt like a talent of which a serious Foreign Office mind would be ashamed. The late James Callaghan, then foreign secretary, wrote a marginal note complimenting me on a speech I’d drafted for him at an entirely low-watt, after-dinner occasion, proposing a toast to visiting Scandinavian royalty. My tiny success seemed so trivial at the time; but it was a pointer-star.

Friends and fellow-failures, we are like those battery-powered puppies you see in toyshop windows: they bob along in a straight line, wagging their little tails, until they hit a wall, whereupon they bounce off on a new trajectory towards the next wall. But where there’s a gap in the walls then, by elimination, they will eventually find it.

You, recently disappointed person, may feel this weekend as though you’ve hit a wall. But you’re more successful classmates, passing through an opening that you missed this time, are only heading for a new wall somewhere else.

Bounce on! And if at first you don’t succeed, bounce off!

By The Times

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