Some time ago I had the opportunity to listen to former Olympic Champion James Tonkin talking about his journey of over twenty years competing at the International Level in rowing. He said “you don’t learn much from success, when things are good you just keep going. Where you learn the most, is from mistakes and from the things that don’t work out”.
It seems like a simple concept but it is profoundly true. And yet, something most of us still battle with. We find it difficult to take risks and put ourselves in situations that may lead to failure and we have trouble looking past the immediate shame and disappointment to find the gift or learning from that situation that will make sure we don’t end up there again.
Why is failure so hard
I believe it’s our conditioning and the messages we’ve received when we are young that make this such a sticky topic. We’re taught that happiness and reward result from achieving a successful outcome while sorrow, heartache and shame can be expected when we don’t reach our potential.
This was likely introduced to us by our parents who rewarded success and commiserated in our mistakes. At school it was reinforced by a system that measures, tests, sets standards or goals that everyone should aim for despite such great diversity in student’s individual strengths and gifts.
In a nutshell there is a huge amount of shame attached to perceived failure.
A different perspective
There is a great story told by Sara Blakley the founder Spanx and business woman extraordinaire, whom as a child was asked regularly by her father around the family dinner table “so what did you fail at today?”. Sarah says she is eternally grateful for this question and this mindset encouraged by her father not only to be honest and encouraged to talk about failure but also to really think and discuss what each small failing has taught her. She credits much of her tenacity and perseverance to succeed in business to this training at an early age and I absolutely love this example.
Gifts from my ‘failed’ marriage
When I made the decision to leave my marriage I felt the weight of a society that says separation and divorce is ‘failing’ at marriage and that failing at marriage is the ultimate fail. You become one of the statistics, the fifty percenters who didn’t make it, the dropouts, the weak ones who couldn’t do the distance, the person who breaks promises.
I knew in my heart what I had to do but the weight of those wider cultural beliefs was something I wasn’t quite prepared for. I was also the first person in my family to separate and the shock for them was so great they didn’t cope well at all. This lack of support just compounded the external pressure I felt, that I was supposed to wallow in misery, do my time, fall apart, to publicly display heartbreak, guilt and shame, to be punished in some way by making this grave social and cultural mistake.
Inside I felt differently, I was relieved, hopeful, empowered that I had finally after many years taken my life into my hands and done the most difficult, truthful, integral thing I could do.
Living a lie, pretending everything is alright when it’s not has disastrous consequences and I couldn’t justify working in the field of health and wellbeing with this major piece of my life being out of alignment. Despite all the noise, all the judgments going on around me I knew that this ‘failure’ was about to force my greatest gifts to the surface and all I had to do was hold on tight and be willing to swim in the murk for a while until they bubbled up.
The strength, courage, open hearted, non-judgmental compassion that emerged for me after that experience has not only transformed my life and who I am as a parent, friend and partner today but it’s also informed my work in the world and what I have to offer others.
Gifts from my failures in business
In my life as an entrepreneur I have experienced multiple failures. People say that if you want a crash course in self-development just start a business and they are not wrong!
I’ve made so many mistakes I’ve lost count. I’ve had to pick myself up off the floor in a pool of tears multiple times and keep going. Apparently I am not alone, it’s almost a rite of passage in the world of small business, though I wished I’d known that from the start instead of thinking I was a unique failure.
Once again the gifts and learning for me have been a deep reserve of perseverance, tenacity and humility that has surprised me at times. I’ve learned to trust in the process of accepting things beyond my control, analysing what went wrong and how I can improve or make a different choice next time.
Most importantly I am learning to change the story in my head from one that beats me up to one that lights me up about the future. I am so grateful for these experiences and I am beginning to see that my greatest failures have actually lead to my greatest successes. I hope you are too.