Failing better

4 09 2013


Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)


The start of a new school year always poses questions about success or failure. For many students, dreams and hopes often lie somewhere between A and B. Try telling a student who didn’t get the grades she hoped for that she didn’t ‘fail’ and she will probably bite your head off.

I think we need a new definition of failure. Samuel Beckett’s idea of failing again and again until we get better at whatever we are trying for is a useful place to start. Like so many writers I remember most the commissions I didn’t get, the staff positions I was overlooked for, the articles that didn’t sell, the novels that remained unfinished, the stories that didn’t quite make it, the terrible poems and the over ambitious film projects.

I have perfect recall of all my ‘failures.’ I could write a great book. I’d call it: Spectacular. It would be an account of all the things I tried that fell flat on their face, of all the things I tried that seemed like great ideas at the time.

Beckett reminds us that we can only get better at failing. I heard yesterday about a girl who has sat her GCSE English exam eleven times. The government has said that students who fail to get English and Maths will have to carry on sitting the exams until they pass at grade C. Some students are going to be sitting their exams more than eleven times; they will have to keep on failing until they pass.

No doubt this is a horrifying prospect for many parents and teachers of students who truly struggle with exams. To force a young person to fail and fail again seems cruel. We are right to want to protect young people from feeling worthless, but saving them from failure is not going to help them succeed.

Beckett’s definition of failure asks us to reconsider failure as possibly something positive. Say the word failure aloud again and again, and inevitably the flabby ‘f’ will depress all the air and energy from your body. The words failure and deflate feel the same in the mouth. Failure equals a slump. Failure is heaviness in defeat.

But whenever I read Beckett’s words I feel a lift, a racing feeling, a wanting to get back to where I left off, so that I can try again, do something different.

And that really is the key to understanding failure. When we fail, we are given an opportunity to do things another way, put a new spin on them, rip them up and start all over again. Looked at this way, failure is positively invigorating.

The trouble is that so many people (and I’ve been there) think that failure is the ‘end.’ It is the sum total of all we amount to. This is a form of zero thinking. It usually runs something like this: this is the best I can do, and obviously this isn’t good enough, therefore I’m a useless human being.  I can bet that girl who took her English exam eleven times wasn’t thinking about failing better each time she went to the exam hall. I bet she was running through the usual script of being useless at English.

If we take the deflation and defeat out of failure by instead thinking of it as a form of reaching then it can help us to stretch that much further. We might get within fingertip distance one time, but just knowing that we nearly got there, we nearly touched it, can push us on to the next level of failure. That is failing better. 

Climbing the wrong mountain

25 10 2012


A few years ago I had the opportunity to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest mountain. In preparation I bought a new pair of walking boots, a down sleeping bag and a lightweight inflatable mattress. I also made enquiries about borrowing a rucksack that had been on a trip to Everest base camp. Books on Kilimanjaro were stacked up on my bedside table.

Part of the training for the trip involved a weekend in the Brecon Beacons. We camped out for two nights in tents that we had to carry ourselves and put up and take down in the dark. I was not fast at this. Nor was I fast at trekking up the steep paths across the Welsh valleys. The new hi-tech boots rubbed a weeping blister on both heels and my energy was low due to being unable to sleep in the cold, damp tent. Added to this was the problem of a torn cartilage in my right knee. Each time I climbed a stile (and there are a lot of stiles in the Brecon Beacons) and put my weight on my right leg, it gave way. The rest of the team were nimbly scrambling up through the woods and bracken-covered slopes, but I was tentative and afraid that the weight of the rucksack would topple me.

On the second night, wide awake with the cold and a terrible dry fatigue, I overheard a team member say that I would slow down the expedition. I finished the weekend exercise knowing that I was climbing the wrong mountain.

It was hard to pull out. I had planned the trip and had been looking forward to the adventure. I’d told people I was going. I’d got excited about climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and seeing something of the abundant wildlife of Tanzania. Even though I’d spent time in Africa, I’d never seen elephant in the wild or giraffe or lions. I had not been on a proper expedition before. All my previous travelling had been visits to family or friends with the exception of one trip to Australia.

I considered getting the knee fixed, but I didn’t want an operation, and there was no guarantee that it would heal strong enough to climb the mountain. It was, however, strong enough to climb a few Devon hills as long as was careful and I could still ride as long as I didn’t try to mount from the ground. On one long walk when I reflected on how I was not now going to climb Kilimanjaro, I felt neither disappointed nor defeated, but strangely euphoric.

The reason was that I’d been putting off trying something that I was afraid of. Kilimanjaro obscured a bigger mountain. That summer I began training a young Arabian colt. Had I been in Kilimanjaro, I would not have had enough time to do this well, and it turned out that training this young and highly spirited horse would start me on an adventure that has lasted ten years and is still taking me to new places.

Sometimes our failures are new expeditions.

%d bloggers like this: