failure graphic

Finding meaning through failure

From childhood, many of us are given two conflicting bits of advice: ‘if at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again’ and ‘don’t take too many risks’. Yet if we’re to bounce back from failure and show true resilience, we have to risk trying again and failing again.

So what can we learn from failure? Is it ever truly a positive experience? Jane Matthews was 37 when, after 10 years together, she and her husband finally conceded their relationship was over. “I truly believe in marriage,” says Jane, “my parents have just celebrated their golden wedding anniversary and I honestly thought, and still think, that staying hitched for life was one of the greatest achievements anyone could aspire to.

When my marriage collapsed irrevocably and we’d also tried counselling for a couple of years my sense of failure was as intense as any physical pain I’ve ever experienced. Three years on, and with more counselling, I can’t say I’m happy that my marriage failed, but I can see all the ways in which I’ve grown through being free of a relationship that wasn’t working. Above all, I feel much stronger than I did when I was married, simply because I now know I can survive and that there is life after failure – I’m living proof of it.”

What about failure surrounding issues we can’t change? These can be incredibly hard to process because there’s nothing we can do about them and they haven’t come about through any ‘fault’ of our own, yet the feeling of culpability can be all consuming. “My sense of failure at being unable to conceive, coupled with my sense of loss, was devastating,” says 53-year-old Yvonne.

“How did I learn to live with it? It’s taken years, but therapy was certainly helpful in enabling me to accept the situation, while mindfulness means I’m aware of what’s good in my life here and now rather than either looking to the future or dwelling on the past. Sometimes the clichés really do apply: ‘it’s not about the hand you’re dealt, but about how you play that hand’.’’

So, from overcoming everyday failure to major disappointments, the approach is similar: acknowledge it, accept it and learn from it. American motivational teacher Denis Waitley said: “Failure should be our teacher, not our undertaker. Failure is delay, not defeat. It is a temporary detour, not a dead end. Failure is something we can avoid only by saying nothing, doing nothing and being nothing.”

Living a life that’s free of failure, then, would seem to be the last thing to which any of us should aspire.