Life - Failing forward
by Anisha Anilraj
Before I started writing this article, I took a long walk and mulled over times in my life when I have failed. I thought about circumstances, feelings, and the impact of my shortfalls on those near and dear to me. Eventually, I wandered into a bookstore. While I had managed to tune into my own feelings on failure, I wanted to know what experts had to say on the subject. The self-help section seemed like the best place to start and I began browsing one shelf after another in anticipation of finding books written by psychiatrists and scholars, which would offer me insights into the human psyche, how failure impacts us and what we can learn from it. To my surprise, I didn’t find a single book.
On the other hand, I encountered the word “success” in book titles multiple times. When I enquired with the bookstore staff, they did a quick search on their database and guided me to an aisle, where wedged between books on manic depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder, I finally found one book. It was titled: Coping with failure.
Having failed miserably during
the first half year at university,
I made a good teacher simply
because I knew what had caused
students to make mistakes
- Anisha Anilraj The bookstore inventory should not have taken me by surprise. Sometimes the proliferation of one thing is caused by a conscious avoidance of another and failure is amongst those experiences that everyone wants to avoid at all costs. Why pay money for a book of platitudes waxing lyrical that it is okay to fail, when instead one can walk a few aisles over and reach for a book that guarantees success! In an act as simple as judging a book by its cover, the word ‘fail’ at face value is a bad word. The experience is often worse. Failure can cause people to plunge into depression, become reclusive, negative, angry, and in some cases even suicidal, which are all extreme reactions to something which is unavoidable.
Over the course of our lifetime, the need to do something we have never done before is bound to arise. New ventures are steeped with possibilities for learning and this learning occurs through both success and failure. While our reactions to success are immediately positive, we sometimes have to cope with our failures before we can process them and move on. In recent times, many motivational speakers and personal development coaches have characterised the emotional and psychological responses to failure in a manner similar to the Kübler-Ross stage model of coping with death.
While some theories describe more stages than others, everyone seems to be in consensus over the fact that our gut reaction to failure is a deep sense of disappointment. We then go through stages of bargaining or re-analysis in an attempt to justify our failure or shift the blame to someone or something else. Finally, we choose to learn our lessons and move on.
Just like in the Kübler-Ross model, every individual does not necessarily go through every stage of the process, making the experience of failure unique to that person. The real danger, however, arises when a person gets stuck in any one stage and refuses to move on. Besides feeling a number of self-destructive feelings, these individuals avoid trying new things for fear that they might have to experience the pain of failure once again.
Not the opposite of success
The immortal Beatles had to contend with initial rejection Despite popular belief, the opposite of success is not failure. The opposite of success is ‘not trying’. An important question we must ask ourselves is: How would we define failure, if the world had not already defined it for us? If there weren’t such strong stigmas associated with failing, is there something we would venture to do?
I was on a bus in the US, where I live, shuffling through one of the earliest drafts of this article, when I had a serendipitous exchange with the gentleman seated beside me. Seeing me with my sheaf of papers he asked me, “Is that homework?” I told him it was an article on failure I was writing for an Indian magazine. He said, “Failure is a very different thing for someone your age and someone my age,” and began sharing with me.
A month before his 60th birthday, he decided to learn to play the piano. “When I started I was terrible,” he said. “My teacher told me I was tone-deaf and my brothers who live next door told me I was mad to pursue this in my old age.” He laughed and added, “Even my wife is constantly threatening to leave me and go back to Mexico.”
The gentleman went on, “They don’t understand my need to pursue something I am not very good at. If I was younger, I might have given up, because when you are young, your ego prevents you from making a fool of yourself. At my age, you know that if you want to do something, you should just go for it. You might not get it right in the beginning, but three months later you will be able to play Happy Birthday to your wife.” He shrugged confidently and added, “Si, se puede,” which means ‘Yes, It can be done’ in Spanish.
When a child learns to walk, she rarely gets it right on her first try. She takes a few steps, falls, picks herself up and tries again. No one keeps track of her failed attempts because we all accept that during the process of learning to walk, one must fall. Most adults are rarely that considerate with themselves. Somehow as we get on in years, failure becomes more and more shameful. We are afraid to try new things, and instead of being liberated by our age and experience, our failures remain in our memory and we collage a list of personal limitations from them.
Failing our loved ones
Among the most poignant experiences of failure and its regenerative value in our lives, is this account from a friend of mine: “When my daughter came to me and said she had missed her period, I did not fully understand what she was trying to say. When it finally sank in, I felt devastated. Although she was 20 at the time, I felt responsible for the situation
|“I take nothing for granted anymore. Soon my failures will be in the past, but I will know that I never was a quitter!” Santosh Menon|
In her email, my friend goes on to say, “I have never feared that my daughter lacked strength of character. Today, she is a successful professional who is in a steady relationship with a wonderful man and I admire her for building her life on her own terms. Our relationship is stronger than ever and when I look at her enjoying the fruits of her hard work I feel a sense of immense pride.”
Whatever their sentiments might have been through that troubling time, today they both know deep in their hearts that in the larger scheme of things, they never failed each other. More importantly, it makes us realise that the true test of love is in not holding failures against each other, but in nurturing one another when we do fail.
Fear of failure
The immortal Beatles had to contend with initial rejection Perhaps the most powerful force that drives us to failure is fear of it. Fear of failing can paralyse many of us, and therefore guarantee that we indeed fail. This pattern is particularly common amongst teenagers. Even though in school or on the playground students are taught that “if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again”, yet when they reach the crucial years between their 10th and 12th standard, the pressure mounts. The fear of failure is so deeply instilled in the minds of these students that it can sometimes prevent them from doing their best.
Sandeep Chatterjee (name changed on request) had never known failure in his whole life. He was an ace student throughout his school years and when he joined junior college his parents had high hopes that he would go on to pursue a career in medicine or engineering. “On the first day of my 12th standard, I was gripped with the fear that I would fail to score marks good enough for medicine or engineering.” He had joined tuition classes for all subjects, but was unable to focus during lectures. “When I went for practice tests, I froze. Even though I knew the answers I couldn’t write them.” As the date of his final exams approached, Sandeep’s dread only got worse. Three days before his first paper, in an act of complete desperation and panic, Sandeep self-inflicted severe injuries to his right hand. “My parents took me to the doctor who said I had multiple fractures to the bones in my hand. My parents were terribly worried and they could not understand how I had hurt myself so badly. They thought I had got into a fight.” Being unaware of their son’s actions to avoid writing the exam and fearing he would lose a year, they tried desperately to contact the university to arrange for a scribe. “I stayed home and prayed that it would not work out and it didn’t. I lost the academic year and all my friends moved on.” With the exam behind him, Sandeep’s feelings of relief changed to depression and disappointment. He avoided going to college and when it was time for the board exams again, he failed in two subjects.
Sandeep’s parents suggested he meet with a counsellor, but he refused. “I was too ashamed. Finally, I spoke to two of my closest friends and told them everything I had done. They were my pillars of strength and supported me through that year. They kept telling me that I had already failed as badly as I could have and the only place for me to go from here is up. I appreciated their honesty. They had a good point.” In his third attempt at writing his Board exams, Sandeep passed with distinction.
Looking back at that traumatic period, he says, “The third time I wrote my exams I had the attitude of someone who had nothing left to lose. After the event was over, I thought back to those three years of my life and I realised the only thing that had changed in that time was my own outlook. I did not become smarter at academics and I knew my syllabus as well as I did the first time. The only thing that was different was this time I was not afraid.”
Actor Rahul Bose had his first major brush with failure when
all his classmates got admission into foreign universities
with the sole exception of himself, despite
being a good all-round student! Today, Sandeep is a post-graduate who works for a design firm. Sandeep’s story speaks to us about the lengths we are willing to go to avoid failing. The first year Sandeep was in his 12th standard, he literally failed because he didn’t even try giving the exam. In his second year, he suffered the setback of having not trusted himself to begin with, until finally he set his fear of failure aside and gave the test his very best. His own understanding of failure changed drastically from the first year to the third. His experience reiterates the fact that by not trying, you have not avoided failure, but eliminated all possible chances of success.
A Mumbai-based healer who does not wish to be named shares about her own prolonged immersion in failure. “From childhood, I had a very poor self-esteem and although I was academically bright, my sense of self was very fragile. I chose a safe, unchallenging job, refused to get married and was allergic to trying out anything new, including a recipe. Although I subsequently shifted and changed, the strong failure pattern continued to rule my life. My mind was so occupied with feeling low that I was hardly available to real life. I used to forget to keep promises, to carry out my responsibilities and so on, which kept me looped in feeling bad about myself.” What helped, she says, was the process of patiently accepting and forgiving herself for goofing up, and committing to doing better next time. “Today, I have reached a stage where I no longer freeze or get defensive when I make a mistake. I robustly proclaim that it is all the more reason to do better next time.” Instead of failure pulling her down, the healer has discovered how to use failure to polevault into success instead.
Santosh Menon (name changed on request), who is a third-year engineering student, shares what he continues to learn from his past failures. “I chose to do Computer Engineering because I love computers and thought that by becoming an engineer I would make my family proud.” However, once he started out he had difficulty keeping up and soon he had lost a year. “I did not realise until much later how much hard work engineering entailed,” says Santosh. “It’s funny but the path that I thought would make my family proud, actually caused them more distress.” When his family conducted numerous poojas for his benefit, Santosh suffered anxiety. “I kept thinking that my failure was not my fault, that there was some force in the universe that was conspiring against me.”
What eventually brought about a transformation was his family urging him to choose another line of study. “Everyone thought that I was not cut out for engineering because I would not put in the hard work necessary." He took up the challenge of proving to himself and to his family that he can be a good engineering student.
“Luckily for me, my parents never lost faith in me and supported me despite my failures. Today, when I go to college it is for the sole purpose of studying. I understand that I am fortunate to have this opportunity that many other students can only dream of and I feel humbled by the thought. I must say, though, I miss my friends dearly, since they have left college for higher studies abroad or are starting jobs.” Santosh says that although he feels left behind, he stays optimistic by considering how he also has the opportunity to delve deeply into the subjects he has had to repeat. He then adds humbly, “I had to pay dearly for this extra knowledge, but I know the best thing for me to do now is to have a positive perspective and look towards the future. I don’t take anything for granted anymore. In a few years my failures will be in the past, but I will know that I was never a quitter!”
“I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other
than what I was, and began to direct all my energy
into finishing the only work that mattered.”
- J K Rowling It is a tough battle for a young man like Santosh to face in a society as time-obsessed and averse to failure as we are, yet his experiences have moulded him into a hardworking individual, who appreciates the opportunities that have been offered to him. His complacency has been replaced with humility, openness, honesty, and perseverance, all qualities that will no doubt serve him well in the future.
The experiences of these students and scores of others in our country speak of how much the fear of failure governs their young lives. Students are constantly plagued with worry which completely nullifies the thrill that comes from learning. Often times, their concern is not about failing to becoming doctors or lawyers for themselves, but instead failing to meet with the expectations and dreams of their family. This fear makes the prospect of failure emotionally charged and thus much more daunting.
Embracing the inevitable
Knowing from personal experience how painful failure can be, I constantly remind myself of the lessons failure has taught me. After I graduated from college, I went abroad to pursue a Masters Degree at one of America’s premier universities. However, in my first academic term, I fared badly in most of my classes. While I was selected by this school for being one of the top students in my field at Mumbai University, I was unable to show them the brilliance that had won me my accolades back home.
The reasons for my failure were many. I initially did not understand the US academic system. I was homesick, lonely, and having a hard time adjusting to the loss of my home in the Mumbai floods of 2005, which occurred a month prior to my departure for the US. However, none of this was of any consequence when I was in a competitive class filled with motivated, hardworking students. What mattered at the end of the day was that I was failing in an institution that was completely loth to failure. I stood out like a fish out of water and had a hard time making friends.
Failure can sometimes have a cascading effect. However hard I tried to pull myself up, I seemed to sink lower. Eventually I was summoned to the Administrator’s office and warned that if I did not improve my grades, I would be put on probation, which is one step away from being dismissed from school as unfit.
I knew then that I wanted to succeed more than anything else, and over the next year and a half I slowly began to get my act together. Somehow, I realised that since my grades weren’t reflecting my knowledge, I would need to speak up for myself and so I talked, to everyone I met. I talked about science, what I learned from it, the research I’d done in the past and so on. Many professors recognised my work and offered me teaching assistantships.
When I graduated two years later, I had good grades and I was bestowed with an award for Excellence in Teaching for my work as a teacher’s assistant. Having failed as miserably as I did during the first half year I was at university, I was always able to help the students who came to me. In many ways, I made a good teacher simply because I knew what had caused students to make mistakes and I was able to guide them through it.
Personally, I cannot say that all my failures have culminated into successes. While I am still trying to come to terms with some of them, I find myself enriched and grateful for those that have given me perspective. Once we have experienced the pain and disappointment that goes with not achieving something, we are also blessed with a deep sense of empathy towards others in distress.
Failing is by no means fun. It remains one of those viscerally painful emotions, but it is also one of life’s most enriching experiences teaching us humility, patience, and above all – compassion.
In an interview conducted some time back, actor Rahul Bose shared that his school years at Mumbai’s most prestigious school, Cathedral and John Connon, heaped him with laurels for academics, acting and sports. “As a consequence, I was insufferable,” he confesses. All this changed when after passing out from school, all his classmates got admission into foreign universities with the sole exception of himself!
“I am so grateful for having had to go through that humiliation,” he said. “It humbled me, made me open to others and more sympathetic. I became more real.”
Perspectives on failure
Many scholars reason that learning from failure is in fact an evolutionary mechanism. Right from the time our ancestors started out as hunter-gatherers, they have used this mechanism to learn. If their crops failed, they tried new techniques until they succeeded. If their prey got away, they learned to outwit it. They never stopped until they succeeded because their very existence depended on honing their skills. We are thus instinctually hardwired for learning from failure, and not fleeing from it.
If the evolution argument isn’t compelling enough, perhaps it might help to consider the price you pay for an opportunity missed because you were scared you would fail if you tried. Some people overcome their fear of failure by accepting the worst possible outcome even before they begin. At the end of the day, if we get something right at our first attempt, we know one sure way of doing it. However, if we had to try and try before we succeeded, it might just be that the more we have failed, the more we have learned about the process. Our failures have equipped us with the power to begin again and this time, more intelligently. Like Thomas Edison said after many failed attempts at finding a filament suitable for an electric incandescent light bulb, “I haven’t failed. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work.”
Success takes persistence
If you were to walk into a bookstore like I did in search of books that speak of learning from failure, then I would urge you to begin your search amongst the biographies. The life stories of great men and women are charged with their many failures. They followed an idea they believed in with passion and unsurpassed zeal. They weren’t afraid of failure as much as being intent on achieving their goals. From The Beatles, who were rejected by a record company saying “guitar bands are on their way out” to Abraham Lincoln who failed in the elections eight times before being elected President of the United States, countless others have altered the course of history by persisting despite their countless failures. Which brings us to the humbling truth that what distinguishes an ordinary man from an extraordinary one is simply – persistence. Success does not come through the avoidance of failure, but is instead a place we get to when we learn from our mistakes and move on.
While we read stories and feel inspired, we often set the book aside and dismiss the thought that we too are capable of accomplishments beyond what we have already achieved. Not trying something for fear of failure would only mean that nothing, good or bad, would ever happen to you. In a commencement speech she titled The Fringe Benefits of Failure and the Importance of Imagination delivered at Harvard University, JK Rowling said, “I was jobless, a lone parent, and as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless.” Armed with the freedom of one who has nothing left to lose, she began writing the Harry Potter series which was first rejected by numerous publishers until finally one gave in at the insistence of his young daughter who loved the book. Ms. Rowling says, “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.” Thus her epic failure proved to be the catalyst of her even more epic success as she said in her speech, “The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are ever after secure in your ability to survive. You will never know yourself or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.”
Failures make us individuals of value who are held in greater esteem than people who are merely individuals of success. All things considered, it’s not how many times you fail, but how you use those experiences to grow that counts. As the saying goes, “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, but how you play the game.”
With a background in microbiology, Anisha is now a writer. She lives in Chicago with husband Susheel and cat Simba
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Subject: Failing Forward - 23 October 2011
Failing Forward is a master piece book written by John C Maxwell and is republished by Magna in India also.
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