Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing. – J.K. Rowling
- An act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success: His effort ended in failure. The campaign was a failure.
- Nonperformance of something due, required, or expected: A failure to do what one has promised, or a failure to appear.
- A subnormal quantity or quality; an insufficiency: the failure of crops.
- A person or thing that proves unsuccessful: He is a failure in his career. The cake is a failure.
Origin of failure
I’ve been thinking about Sara’s post on failure a lot—an unhealthy amount of time in fact. Her bittersweet trial of trying to get a café off the ground in Africa stayed with me long after I closed the tab and shut down my computer. What stuck with me the most were the subtle lamentations underpinning the text. Those delicate and emotive sentiments that left Sara completely vulnerable because she had virtually flayed herself (by way of a singular, vertical cut from collarbone to sternum) and laid it all out.
There was something fierce about her act. Something utterly dissimilar to the host of falsehoods I normally see on social media. Sara didn’t put up a façade. She didn’t try and trick the reader into believing something that was never there. All she did was outline the good, the mostly bad and the ugly of her entrepreneurial affair. She cut right through the bullshit.
Sara peeled back the layers until she was stripped—naked and bare.
Her story affected me strongly because I know how it feels to give yourself over to something entirely only to come up short because the timing was off, or your execution was off, or something in the environment was off, or everyone else was off and could not recognise your genius/embrace whatever offering you had to give. I also know that embarrassment has the acrid taste of rust when it sits on your tongue long enough, and that shame and bitterness are first cousins on every family tree.
While it wasn’t disastrous by a long stretch (disclaimer: I know there are completely horrific and dire things taking place in the world) 2015 was still a record year for failure in my books. It was frustrating because I went head-to-head with multiple challenges and wound up eating a shit-ton of dirt. I had to deal with fallout after fallout from all the failures I amassed in a 12-month span.
It got to the point where the litany of rejection and lack of success fried my nervous system. Collectively, it caused me to question my purpose and abilities, and forced me to make a trip to the internal bank and recalculate my worth. By the end of the year I had stalled. I was out of gas. In response I pulled into an abandoned parking lot that happened to be located outside the town of Failure, which is a sad, sad place in the middle of nowhere. A cock-eyed provincial town, it is where singular defeats become manifest, and every last skeleton of yours will find a way to come back to life. Even worse, it is the place where you will obsess over every gross mistake. You’ll spend hours contemplating the various botched attempts as you try to figure out where you took a wrong turn.
I’ve been idle in this lot for about five months now, and have gone through a series of emotions including anger, frustration, stubbornness and gut-wrenching, grovelling defeat. I eventually entered the realm of utter exhaustion once I learned that giving too much of a damn puts too many grey hairs on my head. And so these days I find myself quietly sitting on the driver’s side with my hands on the wheel. I am looking towards the horizon as slivers of light push against the sky’s underbelly, suggestive of a dawn that is on the verge of breaking. My lungs balloon against my ribcage as I surrender to the brilliant imperfection and fallibility of the present moment. I watch the frost lift from the window. I listen to the wind whisper against the pane. I tap my knuckle against the dashboard and wait for Siri to get her bearings so she can map out an alternate route for us to take.
And although my current lack of purpose still has me pinned me to my seat, I now understand that I am not alone in the way I personalize and internalize my lack of success. I am not the first — nor will I be the last — person to try and force every blasted defeat into the hollow of her bones.
In proper English, failure is a noun and a hungry one at that; however, in looking at the origins of this blasted word I learned that the roots of failure come from France. What makes this interesting is that the French use of the word faillir normally does not allow an object. In most cases faillir is an intransitive verb, and it rarely requires a direct object to “take” or “receive” the action. It is an etymology that suits me far more than its English offspring because when you faillir in French the focus in on your efforts: your boldness in trying. More importantly, it implies there are no third party bones around to force your failures into. In old French, failure is a word that suggests action and transition. It points to a process that involves learning, almost achieving and almost succeeding, as well as yielding and not bowing down.
Not giving in. To stop resisting.
I’m a fan of that definition because power and boldness runs along its edges. There is something to be said for seeing failure as a highway flyover instead of a dead end street. I’d like to think that is what I tapped into when I wrote a comment to Sara regarding her near-successful, entrepreneurial attempt–so for everyone who is currently stuck in an abandoned parking lot deliberating over all the failures of yesterday, may you find the courage to recalibrate and, eventually, get onto the road that will take you closer to the place where your passions/purposes/desires reside.
This is for you.
Here’s to every last one of your glorious, bad-ass, failures.
Let’s not mince words: it fucking sucks to reach for something and: a) not succeed, or b) not receive the due we feel worthy of. It sucks, totally. Let’s sit with that for a second. Yes, good. Let’s have another bite of banana bread. Savour the comfort the sugared rush gives us. Mmmmmm. Delicious. Swallow. Repeat.
Ok, now that your mouth is full of banana bread let me say that I admire your guile. Truly. I do. You know, I sometimes wish people were more pragmatic about entrepreneurship and the challenge of breaking into new fields. It would be nice if we were less starry eyed and overly idealistic, and more willing to discuss the steep learning curves we will face if we chose to take a chance on something we desire. This is a universal truth, well, unless one is afforded the trifecta of privilege, opportunity and networks. (Somehow those three make the chance of success far better, in which case: if you have them, use them for all they’re worth!)
Sadly, failed attempts are still taboo, and it is only when we are eating dirt—commiserating in the mud with others—that we learn failure is commonplace and sometimes more common than success. I don’t get why the concept of failure is treated like Voldemort. Shhhhhhhh! Don’t name the phenomenon because, if you do, it means you are courting the idea you might fail. It’s ironic since failing sometimes winds up being our bridge to success. It is a rite of passage that must occur so we can move on to the other bigger, better, and brighter things.
Thanks for your post Sara and the realisations you shared. Especially the ones that point to you, rightly, being a (capital ‘F’) Force. You are a Force because you stopped talking about what you wanted to do and put yourself out on the line. In the end, you tried. You did the goddamned work. And the nice thing about doing the work is you are worthy of whatever labels you want to claim. Cook? Let me clean off your medallion. Baker? It’s yours. Café manager? Put that on your CV too. I say, take ALL THE LABELS. You’ve earned every last one, including “failure,” however the great thing about it is that it is only one label of many. For not only are you a failure, you’re a mother, wife, community member and friend. You are a knife-wielding business owner.
You, intrepid warrior, are a motherfucking boss.
To mark your delicious failure I believe you should eat ALL the walnut banana bread. Eat the loaf, bake another, and then throw together a third. Feel free to eat every last crumb of your confections, although share if you’d like. Find satisfaction in simple comforts and dive deeper into those blessed lessons of appreciation you’ve learned. Maybe by the fourth or fifth bread all the dirt will be cleared from your mouth and you’ll be eyeing up your next adventure. You’ll start marking the mountains you want to climb and you will stoke the fires of whatever it is that grips you, knowing that there’s no such thing as “failing” per se.
Why? Because we can’t really fail as long as we do the heavy lifting.
But having said that, I bet your next failure will taste glorious.