Failing to fail

What is my understanding of failure? Perhaps not much different to a common view held by many people. Yet I find that my appreciation of failure is inadequate and I am not sure I understand it or even tried to do it. In doing so, what if I failed to understand failure? I have certainly experienced it – at least within those parameters that we define things as failure. Yet it seems that my vocabulary, perspectives and mental frameworks around failure are too poor to appreciate what it really might be.

We seem to be failure prone, yet fearful of it. Even environments where we learn and train – such as schools and universities – constantly undermine our ability to learn to fail. When I did my MBA and MSc – both in the UK, so could be cultural – I only had one chance of retaking the exam or assignment for each subject I enrolled in. So the places of learning discourage failures; actually they teach us to be fearful of failing because failing exams is like a taboo and retaking them is a pain.

A lot of our energy – whether in education, work or home – seems to be spent on mitigating failure. The way we do things and make decisions suggests we are conditioned that failure is bad and much of our effort goes into preventing it. I recently requested some help from someone I know, their immediate reaction was focused on risks. We put so many protocols in the workplace just to ensure that failure does not happen… even if the chance of that happening is small and its effect is limited.

But does lack of failure mean success? Or put another way round, could it be that achieving success by shunning failure is in itself a failure? I remember reading an Azeri story as a kid, where a king wanted to protect his daughter from any illnesses and tried to create an artificial environment where she could be protected. But clearly this strategy worked only up to a point and the system could not account for all the eventualities of life. One day the princess makes a choice that the artificial system did not account for, she develops a disease and dies (if I remember correctly).

I suppose we can create mechanisms incongruent with the realities of life and spend much of our energy on developing and maintaining them. That way fooling ourselves that we are being successful, but at what point do we count success and what do we count as success? What if not having failed is actually a failure? And always being (or trying to be) successful is not actually success?

Perhaps my idea of failure is inadequate, just as my idea of success appears incomplete. The challenge for me, it seems, can I experience failure such that it translates into a meaningful experience and create a narrative congruent with the reality of life?

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