Success and Failure – A Risky Business

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On New Years Day I woke up alone, in a hotel room, single, unemployed and unsure of what the future held for me. Apprehensive? Perhaps a little. With a sense of failure? Not at all! Although this is not the life that my younger self expected to be living as I approach a ‘special’ birthday (I was born in the late ‘70s, you do the maths!). When I was growing up I felt labelled ‘the clever one’ in the family and although it was a badge I wore with pride for a time, there was always going to come a point where I failed to live up to that title. Which begs the question: if you’re a ‘somebody’ when you are successful, who or what are you when you are unsuccessful, be it playing WD in a netball game, sitting a Year eight maths test, in a job or a relationship? And moreover, has the fear of failure, exposing our limitations and revealing our selves as not good enough, led to us minimising our experiences in any area where we could potentially fail?

Being honest with myself when I’ve thought about this, the answer has sometimes been yes. And I’ve come to realise that it hasn’t served me well. Creating a world where we limit any possible flaws is not only boring, but completely exhausting in my view. What are we missing out on if we don’t try?

Almost my entire career has been based around education, and it goes without saying that teachers want their students to do well. But judgements of our own professional performance are very much tied up with the accomplishments of our students. At the sharp end, the highest grades are prized, the league tables matter, and the kids know this. In my time as a teacher I’ve witnessed the parents who, from a place of deep love for their children, deny them the chance to experience failure or disappointment by making sure that everything is easy/perfect , wanting to keep them away from any situation that could potentially lead them into difficulty or emotional discomfort. Even more painful to watch, is the child berated for failing to be the best. And the judgement doesn’t stop at the school gates either. We see it on TV week in and week out, the constant competition of ‘talent’ pitted against each other in ballrooms, boardrooms and big white tents. We follow the journeys of these contestants as they try to prove themselves, until they are judged as not good enough.

Here is what I think: if we judge ourselves by other people’s definition of success, then we are heading down a road of disappointment and possibly delusion.

But what happens afterwards? For many years now we have inhabited a digital world of 24/7 news and social media streams where access to these stories is unrestricted. Filtered snapshots of celebrity lives are offered up for approval. Scrutinised and derided, and those deemed to have failed, screwed up or fallen short of the mark, face public mockery or scorn. I wonder how much of this has been internalised by my own generation and I also fear the impact this may be having on the current youngsters who have known no other way.

On the bright side a new conversation is emerging for those who are prepared to listen. Schools are running ‘failure days’, encouraging students to be their own best self rather than the best, role modelling growth mind-sets and trying to reject the suffocating notion of perfection. I hope that some of these philosophies can counterbalance the continuous appraisal school life seems to entail, and help to build some resilience in the young generation.

For me, I have spent so much of the last decade comparing myself to others around me, friends, family, the people I held up as living the ‘good life’. Too much energy has been spent trying to have what others apparently had – the relationships, the career path, the lifestyle. But I often felt a fraud. As I became the ‘last woman standing’ amongst my peers who were settling down or reaching new heights in their professional field, I felt like the odd one out. I craved the pat on the back of recognition that I thought others got as they celebrated life’s milestones. Nobody was explicitly telling me I was an anomaly, so why did I feel like I might be failing? If I wasn’t living up to the standards of those around me, surely I was doing something wrong?

Fortunately, I’ve realised that by playing it safe and avoiding situations where I might not succeed, I’ve been missing opportunities to learn, grow and challenge myself. Attending a roller disco at the school I used to work at comes to mind as a prime example. At first I baulked at the idea of joining the kids on skates. ‘I might injure myself, or fall flat on my face and look stupid’, I thought. But throwing caution to the wind, I put on the boots and… I loved it! A trivial tale but seriously, on a larger scale, I’ve been questioning what I’ve missed out by not taking more risks.

Here is what I think: if we judge ourselves by other people’s definition of success, then we are heading down a road of disappointment and possibly delusion. And when did the cut-off point of ultimate success/failure get decided? Thomas Edison famously once said ‘I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work’. This should serve as a light-bulb moment for us all. We may all fail to succeed at certain things in life, but this doesn’t mean that we are failures.

Oh, and what about New Year’s Day? Well, I’ve taken the leap to leave a job that I feel I’ve grown out of to pursue other passions. I’m off travelling for a month. It’s time to let go of the picture in my head of what my life should look like, to embrace the fact that not everything will work out according to plan. I will make mistakes no doubt, have disappointments and setbacks. But sitting back, playing it safe and small to avoid failure is a risk I’m no longer willing to take.

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Originally from Kent, Jennifer is a writer, former languages teacher and avid Crystal Palace fan. Connect with Jennifer on Twitter via @ImJenWoodley.