It seems hard to believe, but there was a brief time when I was genuinely worried that I’d failed too little.
At school, I was one of those annoying kids: the sort who didn’t mind exams. The first big difficulty I faced was my driving test. I had sleepless nights for months, but passed first time. While I was celebrating, somebody said something — in jest — which I found chilling:
“You’ve never failed. When you do, it will tear you apart.”
This threatening prophecy struck me deeply, and I worried over it for longer than I like to admit. For years, I grew ever more afraid of failure. Not only was the failure itself frightening, I imagined disintegrating completely as I failed to handle its implications.
But, mercifully, the prophecy turned out to be unfounded. Life has forced me to become a specialist in failure. At one time or another, I’ve been rejected by universities, employers, agents, publishers, organizations, opportunities and humans in general.
These mounting failures didn’t lead to a crumbling sense of self and spiraling anxiety. Rarely, I’ve even been able to laugh and carry on without a second thought. But those times are the exception. Most of the time, it’s not easy. Failure hurts.
“If at first you don’t succeed…
…stop mindlessly quoting this. It isn’t appropriate in every situation when something goes wrong. Seriously.”
You’ve probably read all the advice on handling failure before:
“17 Lessons We Can Learn from Failure”
“Failure is necessary for success”
“Jeff Bezos once did a really boring show & tell but now he’s king of the universe”
And so on. Each of these articles tries to reframe failure as a positive, and they all tend to make me feel worse.
Okay, cool, Famous Author got rejected a billion times. Hearing that doesn’t make my rejection hurt any less, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee that if I keep going I’ll succeed — in just the same way that somebody else winning the lottery doesn’t make it rational for me to keep playing!
These positive stories do have an important function. They are designed to encourage persistence, to combat the natural human response to give up in the face of failure. But picking yourself up, perhaps again and again, is exhausting and painful.
This is particularly true because of the unpredictability and unevenness of success. In some arenas, persistence is all that’s required. But in many important areas of life, success requires more than persistence. We may need luck, or other factors outside of our control — even down to having the right accent, background, skin colour or parents.
This matters, both for the obvious reason — the world is unfair and we should work toward making it less so — and because the biggest factor which determines how I feel after failure is who I choose to blame. (Spoiler alert: there’s no good option.)
Is this my fault? Did I mess up? Am I not good enough?
Or does the blame lie elsewhere? Perhaps success was never in my hands. Or I was just unlucky?
Blaming myself makes me feel depressed; blaming the universe, frustrated. Both, unfortunately, make me feel hopeless. Blame is an emotional trap that keeps my focus on failure.
The only escape I’ve found from this conundrum is to take a wider perspective on both failure and success.
The trick is to realize that the very concept of failure is dubious. Success is often what I define it to be. For example, when my first book came out I worried about failing. But what would that mean? What if ‘only’ a million people read it? A thousand? A dozen? Only my mum?! Even in this final case, what if my mum was the only reader… but she really loved the book, and it changed her life?
Any of those outcomes could be a success, if I deemed them to be. Failure is a movable concept, which means it’s in my power to move it somewhere that doesn’t hurt me.
Even knowing this, it’s tempting to take a negative perspective. Sticking with the example of my book, thousands of people have read it. There are days when I view that as a success, and others when I view it as a failure. The only difference between those two is how they makes me feel: good or bad. So, it’s sensible to choose to view my readership as a success whenever I can.
In more binary situations, like a rejection, it helps to widen my perspective away from labeling an event as a success or a fail. For example, a job hunt technically ended in failure but I learned a new programming language in the process, which I then used to create cool things like this game. Unless I want to feel bad, it doesn’t make sense to label the whole process as either a success or a failure.
Similarly, as I write this in the third month of 2021 it’s easy to feel like the year is a failure already. That resolution to exercise every day didn’t last long! But if I exercised for ten days out of the month then that’s better than zero. There’s a hidden success within the failure that I can use as fuel to continue.
Avoid the spiral of doom
But now I’m committing the same error as those inspirational articles I complained about earlier. The truth is, it’s easy to cope with failures, as long as they come one at a time.
When everything is going well, a simple setback isn’t so bad. It’s easy to handle the emotions, look for positives, reframe the situation, move the concept of failure, or choose to focus on the hidden successes or things I learned.
But what about rejection, after rejection, after rejection, and then some bad family news, and then an argument with a partner, and then dropping the shopping on the way home? And then another rejection lands in the inbox… That’s when it’s easy to spiral.
Handling multiple failures at once is completely different from handling a single setback.
I’ve learned that my usual coping strategies make me feel worse when multiple failures are involved. Once I hit a certain point, any attempt to look for positives ceases being helpful and actually adds to my sense of hopelessness. I come up empty-handed, thinking, There are no positives here… There are no positives anywhere.
Declare emotional bankruptcy
Instead, when I hit that critical mass of failure and disappointment, I have to use a completely different coping strategy.
First, I declare emotional bankruptcy. This isn’t an official process; it’s more just an admission to myself that I’m going to stop even trying to feel happy. Lots of bad things have happened, and it’s okay to admit that Things Currently Suck. I lean into the pain instead of looking for a way out of it.
Then there’s a choice of my next step. I can either throw myself fully into something, or take myself fully out. One direction is to become absorbed in a new project, ideally something completely different from whatever has been causing the sense of failure. The other is to find a fantastic non-productive distraction: take a walk in the countryside, sit on the sofa with a book, go outside and stare at a plant — whatever.
At some point, when the initial, acute sense of failure and doom has subsided, I can engage again and look for positives in the overall situation. I can start to reassess the failures that brought me to this point. I can analyze what I can learn from them, and what I can do better next time. I can accept the things that were outside of my control, and accept that things didn’t work out how I wanted.
The final step is to move on. Often this happens outside of my control, as I stumble upon a new spark of interest: maybe a video of somebody fixing a computer from the 1970s makes me go, Hmmm, I could do that! Whatever the spark is, the key is to replace the old failure with something new and begin an upward spiral. (Of course, that could be a new attempt at the old failure, if I’m feeling brave. Sometimes the time out is enough for that, sometimes it isn’t.)
I may not specialise in much, but I’ve definitely developed expertise in failure.
Sometimes surviving failure is about finding a perspective that reveals the success within. And sometimes, it’s about acknowledging that it’s all too much — and anyone who comes near me with an inspirational quote can get lost.
I’ve learned many lessons from the inevitably of failure and the biggest is this: it isn’t necessarily the end of the world.
[this article was originally written for Puttylike]
Neil Hughes is the author of Walking on Custard & the Meaning of Life, a comical and useful guide to life with anxiety, and The Shop Before Life, a tale about a magical shop which sells human personality traits. Along with writing more books, he puts his time into standup comedy, speaking about mental health, computer programming, public speaking and everything from music to video games to languages. He struggles to answer the question “so, what do you do?” and is worried that the honest answer is probably “procrastinate.” He would like it if you said hello.