It’s time to reevaluate our conception of failure


I think we’ve all at some point read something along the lines of ‘I’m so proud of [insert accomplishment here], but this hasn’t come without failures along the way. For example, [insert failures here]’. To make it clear from the start, I’m not belittling these articles. Success stories where things haven’t quite gone to plan in the process are inspiring, echoing the Year 11 assembly-esque teaching: ‘success isn’t a straight line’.

It’s an important message, but my issue is that these stories always follow on from one final success which is what takes centre stage. It’s easy to rebrand a failure as a ‘blessing in disguise’ with hindsight, but we lack articles that celebrate failure in and of itself, without being glossed over by a subsequent victory. In other words, we can look for positives in the very moment of failure itself.

Last month, I ran for JCR President at Grey College. Unsurprisingly, given the topic of this article, I was not elected. However, the feelings of disappointment on losing the election were much weaker than in similar situations I’ve experienced before. If I had won, I would have been elated, yet the setback was not inversely proportional.

Things not working out as you originally hoped can lead to other things

The fact that my two opponents were not only outstanding candidates but also lovely people that I genuinely consider as friends certainly helped in this regard, but there was more to it than that. Over the years, I’ve come to not only accept failure but embrace it. Admittedly, I did go into the campaign with a solid back-up plan for next year, so there was much less at stake than for those facing failure without other options. Nonetheless, in previous situations, I would ignore the benefits of the back-up plan and fixate on success with tunnel vision, ultimately leading to a much more painful setback.

To repeat another phrase that I’m sure many of us heard in Year 11, ‘the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry’, and it is only through plans going awry that I ended up at Grey in the first place. In a similar way to how Lenny’s dream of living on a rabbit-filled ranch helped him through his monotonous existence in the GCSE English Literature classic that is George Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, I clung to the flawed belief that getting into Oxford would solve all my problems.

However, like many of us at Durham, I too received that fateful email, bursting my bubble of unrealism. I was then reallocated from Mary’s to Grey, where I’ve had the most fun and transformative time in my life and consequently decided to run for President.

Many of us still haven’t internalised the idea that ‘success isn’t a straight line’

There are many other situations I could explore, but the message is the same: things not working out as you originally hoped can lead to other things. 

I don’t subscribe to the idea that ‘everything happens for a reason’: maybe the actual outcome will be better than your original plan, maybe it won’t; you’ll never know, but either way, you’ll gain knowledge and experience which is always worthwhile.

Despite being something of a cliché, I have a sneaky feeling that many of us still haven’t internalised the idea that ‘success isn’t a straight line’, and I think we should because it fosters perspective, resilience and ambition. 

Being at peace with the prospect of failure will enable us to approach our goals with the motivation of being the best we can be, instead of out of fear of humiliation. It gives us more confidence to continue chasing our aspirations when things go wrong as we will appreciate that mistakes are a key part of the process. Perhaps counterintuitively, it will allow us to dream bigger and therefore potentially bring us greater success in the long run.

I’ve learned to see the value of unmet ambitions in the moment of failure

There is nothing wrong with being sad as a result of failure and I’m not immune from being disheartened myself. What I’m suggesting is that, while accepting our feelings and taking care of our wellbeing, we shift our perspective to viewing failure as an opportunity for personal growth and re-evaluation. This is why the disappointment on finding out that I didn’t get JCR President, although very real, was weakened by a genuine excitement for how I could spend next year instead.

In essence, I’ve learned to see the value of unmet ambitions in the moment of failure, rather than only with hindsight. Not only have I found this to make setbacks significantly easier to overcome, but this attitude has transformed my entire outlook on life to a point where I celebrate these moments as the start of something new and exciting.

After all, a life where everything goes to plan makes everything a bit less interesting, much like reading from a book that has ‘George shoots Lenny’ scribbled on the first page.


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