There is freedom in failure

I’ve failed. In January, I boldly posted a promise to update the site with all the brilliant learning points I reckoned I’d take home from my new job in a new hospital Trust. I wanted to write about the upside of a challenging job. Well, I didn’t. The site has been dormant for about 6 months. I broke my promise. I failed to deliver.

But, as the sign in my neighbourhood pub suggests, when life serves you lemons (or in my case, when you serve them to yourself) add gin and tonic.

So here’s the tonic to my recent failure: a life lesson on failure in general.

When I googled “freedom” and “failure”, I got a ton of results. Malcolm Gladwell wrote an essay for the NYT called ‘The Art of Failure’. Bloggers all over the planet are writing about it. Mountain bikers and other athletes are writing about it. Entrepreneurs are writing about it. Sir Ken Robinson spoke about it in his now infamous TED talk on education.

So why are we still so terrified of failing?

My daughter came home the other day in tears over her recent Geography exam mark. She then began to confess a few other less than perfect test and exam scores, going back to several years, that she’s been harbouring inside of her – all painful testaments to the fact that she, at the tender age of 10, has failed to produce perfect scores every time.

I tried to reassure her that she was not put on this earth in order to get perfect test scores – this is not her deeper purpose in life. This is not why we’re all here. To get perfect test scores. Not why we’re here at all.

But it is clear that generation after generation are still being taught to never make mistakes. Mistakes mean you are worse than the guy beside you who made fewer of them. Mistakes mean you didn’t try hard enough. Mistakes mean you don’t have what it takes. In my line of work, mistakes could literally mean death. And in the new health care culture of transparency, it means that any mistake will be held up for all to see – essentially a policy of shame and blame. So, in the hospital, we all live in fear of making a mistake on the job.

It all makes for a pretty narrow path on which we can safely tread. In order to avoid mistakes, we must:

  • stick with what we know
  • never learn anything new
  • do the same thing over and over again
  • treat life like a musical score where we are the pianist, but never the composer

But: have you ever tried to make something out of nothing? Such as a drawing. Or a piece of writing. Or a recipe. Or a craft. Or a poem. Or a blog post. Or a new skill. Or learn a new language. Or adapt to a new job. Or face a new parenting challenge. Or had to take a new route to work due to traffic. You get the idea.

There are occasions where newness enters our life, whether we like it or not. Artists know this state of the blank slate well. Artists inhabit this blank slate. Those of us who avoid the creative arts can try to dodge this state of newness, but it cannot be avoided forever because, whether we like it or not, it is a compulsory part of life.

And when you try something new, failure is built into the equation. It cannot be avoided. You can’t go from knowing nothing to knowing everything without failing in between. You just can’t. I am thinking right now of my son, who has been learning the piano. I have found him slumped overtop of the keys, head cradled over arms, fists clenched. Mistakes. Lots of them. So much angst over the learning process. So much expectation to get it right straight away.

I had a conversation with my son after this. The conversation was about the joy of learning (and screwing up along the way). Learning should be fun! Making mistakes should be as joyful and messy as stomping through puddles! Let’s all thrash about on the piano keys. Play around with a new concept. Muck about with words. Most of them will be shite but some will shine. That’s okay. That’s more than okay. That’s beautiful. That’s learning. That’s life.

I’m learning French. I’m terrible at French, I dropped it in high school as soon as I was permitted. My French teacher commented recently on the different personalities he’s observed in his students: the contrast between the person they are when they speak English (confident, self-assured) and the person they are when they speak French (gentle, vulnerable). He attributes it to the different languages. I attribute it to the state of learning and therefore failing. It strips off that protective shell and opens you up to vulnerability, to a humble respect for whatever it is you’re learning, to that childlike state of beginning again, to being human.

And that’s the crux of it, right there. Learning, creating, trying new things… this is being human in the richest, most wondrous sense. Vive la défaillance!


Next up: How to fail. Or, how to open yourself up to the creative impulse and accept what arrives.

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