By Anisha Anilraj October 2011 It’s okay to fail. It can even be instructive to fail. For in the school of life, failure is de rigueur to help us correct perspectives, come down to ground reality, learn valuable lessons and help us grow, says 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 duringthe first half year at university,I made a good teacher simplybecause 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 she was in. I couldn’t help but think that it was partly my fault and that I had failed her in some way. Perhaps I had not taught her enough about men and intimacy, or perhaps being a working woman I was not paying enough attention to her life. A mother always feels that it is her duty to protect her child from getting hurt, and I felt that I had failed in my primary duty as mother to my daughter. She had always been a wonderful child, extremely good in school, popular amongst her peers, loved dearly by her friends and family. I couldn’t imagine she would ever be in a situation like this. I struggled to accept it. It all seemed so unreal and impossible. When I think back to that terrible week and the uncomfortable visit to the doctor’s office, I remember my daughter’s resilience more than anything else. She had apologised to me repeatedly and when I looked into her eyes I saw her naïve innocence replaced with a quiet worldliness, which is when I realised that my daughter felt like she had failed me too. I was worried she might do something extreme, especially since her boyfriend had left her two weeks ago, but she weathered those days and came out stronger and wiser.” 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 hi
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