Failure is powerful, transformative, enhancing and causes more than a third of teenage girls to suffer depression and anxiety.
Heck, I would know. I have failed a lot in my life so far. Last year, I applied to 50+ crappy jobs. Every single one rejected me. I went home and cried after each interview, convinced there was something intrinsic wrong with me. How could I ever do creative work if I was considered ‘under qualified’ to wait tables or sell cinema tickets?
I have started 3 blogs. The first failed because I was 13 and had no idea what I was doing. I tried to code my own site and that failed. The second, a few months later, was quite successful (in part because my age made me a novelty.) Then my motivation dwindled and I began posting less and less.
Around that time, I fell into depression and failed at the simplest things of all. Getting out of bed, having conversations, writing, looking after myself, eating and sleeping all became challenges I could not overcome. I remember feeling genuine pride at having got out of bed and made it downstairs to make coffee and toast by 6pm.
I failed at these basic life skills with enough consistency to land me an appointment with a doctor. Wow, I thought, this has got to be the ultimate failure. Well done me.
Treatment for depression in the UK is built psychologically on physical force and threats until some sort of survival instinct kicks in. It doesn’t always, though. I met many girls – smart, beautiful, wonderful girls- who hadn’t spoken or walked or been outside or done anything not forced for years. Some got better. Some are still stuck like that. For a while I kept failing and failing and failing. After a few months, I began to make small wins. A combination of therapy, proper nutrition, sleep and intense friendships with other girls chipped away at the black depression. I remastered the art of doing the basic stuff needed to function.
Then I started writing again. I wrote more than ever before. Every 10 days, I filled a Moleskine notebook. On bad days, I drew and made collages, turning images into eventual words. It began with drivel, which turned into stories, rants, letters never to be sent, plans. I wrote about the home, family, friends and college which I ached to return to. From the writing came hope, and from the hope came fewer failures.
During that time, I had failed a lot, though I was lucky to have somehow remained at the middle of the bell curve. Enough failure to make me push myself harder than ever before. Not enough failure to make me give up and resign myself to a life in bed.
At the wrong end of the bell curve is consistent, crushing failure. The kind which forces so many people to give up on their creativity. Maybe the ability (honed through deliberate practice) is not there. Maybe the world isn’t ready. The world is often not ready. Or you are not ready for the world.
It’s a scale which varies from person to person. Some quit after one rejection by a publisher, jeer from an audience or critical comment on a post. Some continue to the point of bankruptcy, isolation and ill health.
Between lies that crucial balance. Enough failure to keep you driven and realistic. Enough success to ensure you maintain the discipline to keep going.
I have written before about my thoughts on reacting to criticism of your work. In my opinion, not giving a fuck is the wrong way to go. I believe you should care deeply and embrace negative reactions. If you can feel the pain of failure deeply and still continue then that’s a good sign.
Stephen King hung each rejection letter he received from a publisher on a nail in his study. When the nail got too full, he got a larger one and kept writing. Again, if you have been living under a rock, he has since sold over 350 million books.
To cap off this post, here are some of my mental models for handling failure.
1 – Imagine it as a training montage. You know those scenes in countless films where we see the hero go from hapless loser to cool superhero? My favourite is from Mulan. After much struggle and practice, she climbs a tall pole and impresses everyone. I like to picture myself in one of those whenever I suck at something. I imagine a time lapse of me writing at my desk, culminating in me publishing my first book. With a lot of scrunching up paper and swearing. It is a powerful visualisation. I also use this when revising for exams or exercising. Mulan falling off the pole was the necessary initial step towards her climbing it. If she can do that, I can finish this essay and reach the stretch goals I am working towards. The basic stuff (like, you know, getting out of bed) doesn’t even make it into Mulan’s training montage, so it shouldn’t be part of mine.
2 – Expose myself to it until it looses it’s meaning. I was VERY unpopular at school. Unpopular enough to have chairs thrown at me, my work torn up and my books spat on. My means of handling it was to record insults and snide comments. I would then reread them again and again. Before long, those words lost their capacity to hurt me. I reclaimed control over my responses. And in the end, they are just words, you give them power when you cower. Failure is just a word. It is something subjective. Are the failures I have mentioned here really that? Who knows. It’s up to me (and you) to decide.
3 – Eradicate all traces of it and move on. This was the advice my older brother gave me once and it has stuck with ever since. Sometimes I don’t want to accept or rework. Sometimes I just need to forget and move on. Or fail early in life and get it all over with. Then you’ll learn to breathe again when you embrace failure as a part of life, not as the determining moment of life. Failure doesn’t always mean anywhere near as much as we imagine.
4 – Focus on maintaining a growth mindset. My writing has come a long. The hundreds of blog posts which no one ever read, the rejected applications for writing roles, the ignored submissions, the burnt notebooks, the deleted Word documents, the scrapped drafts, the ideas which never even made it onto a page – they all contributed to where I am now. Along the way, I have learned how to hone my work and write stuff which people like to read. Some people. Some of the time. I still experience the same failures on a daily basis, except the wins are there too. That is what a growth mindset is all about.