We have such an allergic reaction to the word failure. How could we not when it’s part of our language that’s steeped in blame. And shame.
What is it to fail? We’re going to take all of the emotional baggage away from that word for a moment. We know it’s a lack of success. Perhaps something was expected, and it didn’t happen. Maybe something went wrong. Or what you produced wasn’t to the right quality or quantity. It doesn’t sound half as bad written out like that. But unfortunately, we don’t objectify or compartmentalise failure in this way, instead we personalise it, we wear it, we let it define us. It’s had a bit of time to develop this a-class level attitude. It goes way back to the 13th Century, the word taking its origins from a few places. One is the Latin word ‘fallere’ meaning to disappoint. Wow. Another is the Anglo-French word ‘faillir’. That’s not quite as harsh, it translates as ‘to almost do something’. I like that take on things better. Almost.
Our allergy to the word failure is, in my humble opinion, a product of not just the act of failing but the implication that we are the failure. The word is unfortunately flexible enough for our inner critics to dictate that we have become one and the same with the act. The fail is somehow an expression of our identity at that moment. And shame raises its ugly head once again. And for goodness sake, failure has its own word to signify the fear of failure. It’s that prolific. Atychiphobia. Yes, it’s a real thing, it’s a proper phobia and it’s life impacting. Like I said in my blog on anxiety, I don’t think you have it, or you don’t, it just works at different levels of impact.
I had a failure last year. It was significant to me. That doesn’t mean I am the failure, I simply didn’t get the outcome I wanted. Failed. I could equate it to an E minus, but a better analogy would be ‘ungraded’. I wanted to take part in the Great South Run, but my two swollen ankles had other ideas. I had a good reason not to and it was a sensible decision to stop. But it’s still a failure. Have I stopped running as a result? No. Will I now stop entering other races? No. Will it stop me giving other things a try for the first time and putting myself out there? No. But I do want to unpick this a little more. When I started working towards my goal, I was more than happy to share my moments of success via social media. All too happy to document each mile gained. I got lots of encouragement and that was great. But I was less happy to share that I was having problems. I appreciate part of the reason for that, was due to the “wait and see period” to know whether my ankles would calm down in time to resume training and still take part. But to be honest it was also a lack of acceptance of the failure. I was limping around with two angry swollen ankles only weeks ahead, strapped to the nines and popping ibuprofen like they were sweets. And I still didn’t want to admit to the failure. Why? I feel confident that I would have equally received lots of love and encouragement from a Facebook post about my struggles so it’s not that. But I didn’t post. Yes, I was open through many quieter one to one conversations with friends. But I still didn’t post. I didn’t like failing. Or admitting to it. Even a few weeks ahead of the race, as I was getting back into running and familiarising myself with square one, I was still fooling myself that I could make it. I couldn’t. Again, resisting the concept of failure. Our brains are very powerful, and we will go to great lengths to avoid admitting to failure.
I do like the process of re-claiming emotionally laden words. Take the case of ‘epic fail’. It’s a 21st Century evolution which sticks it’s fingers up at the 13th Century origins. It was supposed to pay note to something that had failed in a notorious or public way. But it’s use is much broader than that and the use of the word epic makes it so grandiose that I think it gives you some life perspective on the fail. Now it’s often said in jest. Often part of banter. Can be aimed at yourself without a dire impact on your self-esteem. I would love that spirit to permeate the feelings towards failure. And to help out those sister words of ‘lose’ and ‘mistake’ too.
This year I have some more challenges planned. My year starts with the Bournemouth Bay Run, followed by Snowdon, then I am waking 50miles in the Transylvania Alps, and finally the Great South Run. I’m looking forward to each one of these, but equally I’m in a different headspace if they don’t work out. Not that I wouldn’t be frustrated if anything gets in my way, I’m human after all. But I now know I have weak ankles and need to work with them. I also know I’m better when I cross train, I don’t just want to run. I also know I don’t want to run more than ten miles. I know if I have an injury, I can get back to my fitness level. So, if something does happen to take me off course I can learn, and I can flex. That’s the most important thing. And I’m going to live by the words of Bobby Kennedy: “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” Even if this quote from him is pretty much a copy of part of a speech by Teddy Roosevelt 56 years earlier. Epic fail.
I would love to hear from you below. None of the fields are mandatory, and you can leave it anonymously. What was your epic fail?