The F Word (Failure)

Failure is something we have all faced at some point or another. Failed maths class, failed driving test, failed relationships. That big, fat fat “F”, circled in red marker that can haunt you across the span of your life. Sound familiar? It can be the difference between feeling all time highs and all time lows. It’s a risk to try new things, put ourselves out there, because what if you fail? What if you’re handed the dreaded “F”? But why are we so afraid to fail? Are we so afraid of failure that we don’t challenge ourselves? And then if we do, we fear the ridicule that may follow if you do in fact fail? Fear of failure is a reality for a lot of people. It’s got me thinking though, in the big scheme of things, is failure really such a bad thing?

I think back to the first time I received a fail mark on a maths test. I was in year 10, doing year 11 maths (nerdy right?), I didn’t know anyone in the class, so I spent most of my time studying the text book and doing practice questions. I was feeling on top of my game. First calculus test, I failed. I remember the gut wrenching feeling of receiving my paper back, with a red F and a “48%” mark written on it. I remember how embarrassed I was, I couldn’t even tell my friends let alone my parents. The thoughts through my head were; what would they think of me? what would they say? they probably all think I’m stupid. But hang on, here I was, doing advanced maths a year ahead of where I should be, I was taking a pretty big risk to step up to the challenge in the first place, and yet I felt so ashamed that I had failed. I look back on that now and feel sorry for the 15 year old me, because I was so concerned about what everyone else was going to think, I didn’t take the chance to learn from my mistakes, and grow as a student (or a mathematician). Consequently I went on to struggle through most of calculus, and now the most maths I can do involves 20% off sale items on ASOS (the irony).

If we don’t fail, we don’t learn. So goes if you don’t try something, you’ll never learn either. I’ve met a lot of people over the years who are too afraid to try something new, now I’m not talking doing a bungee jump or climbing mount everest, but even the simplest things like applying for a new job or trying a new food. Now, I love food, I’ll try just about anything (maybe not rat paste in Vietnam, but still you get the picture). But I’m sure we’ve all met those difficult people who refuse to try something because they insist they won’t like it, but how do you know? Are these people afraid to try something new? Is it because they’re afraid they won’t like it? But really, how do you know? People can tell you, Trip Advisor can tell you, some insanely overpaid food critic can tell you, but really unless you actually try something for yourself, how will you ever learn if it was a success or a failure?

I’ve had many “failures” of my own, but what is harder is watching someone you care about feel like a failure for trying something that didn’t work out as planned. Watching someone you care about feel like not only they’ve let themselves down, but that they’ve let others down around them. Watching them morph into a shadow of themselves, humiliated and ashamed. But why? From my experience, the people who care about you want you to succeed, but more importantly want you to be happy. They want to share your story of attempt with pride, and so they should! If the people you consider close friends and family don’t support you, if they are willing you to fail, then maybe you should reconsider how important these kinds of people are to you and your quest for success.

If we fail anything it’s this immediate shame and feelings of humiliation that overcome us. The feeling of failure is such a dark horse, it can be something that internalises a person and makes them a recluse, maybe feeling like no one else understands. It’s a feeling that is completely self inflicted, but its exacerbated by the fear of judgement from others. But what if it wasn’t called failure, what if it was called something else? Would we still have the same negative association with trying something that doesn’t succeed? I think people who try new things, who take risks, who put themselves out there emotionally should all be commended. Well done for giving it your best shot, and if it wasn’t your best shot, learn something from the experience, and give it an even greater shot next time. Don’t ever let the fear of failure hold you back, you can only get to the top if you’re not afraid to fall.

Live well. Think often.

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