I've been thinking about failure quite a lot recently. And not just my own, I might add.
It's fascinating how attitudes to this potentially harrowing experience can differ from person to person. Some use fear of failure to drive themselves on while others block it out, liberated by their ruthless ability to charge forward from one uninhibited moment to the next in pursuit of success. You'll be hearing examples of both in the next Ideastap podcast, which I and the team having been working on for the past month or two.
Choosing my biggest failure was a really difficult exercise. Not because there are so many; for me, there are no real rock-bottom stories or gasp-inducing anecdotes to share. It's more an ongoing, overarching sense that I haven't quite cracked life yet. Being present, at peace with myself, not sweating the small stuff, taking more risks… that sort of thing.
Sure, I've tasted my fair share of rejection – by institutions, employers … girls. Then there was the time I was given a 'C' in AS level history, accompanied by a particularly cutting examiner's report, convinced beforehand that my efforts would almost certainly be rewarded with an 'A'. Sounds trivial but the experience made me question my ability to think critically and write at a time when my studies meant everything to me and I, like many other teens, was desperate to discover what I was good at. But after a period of mourning – for the hotshot I thought I was – I simply accepted the feedback and vowed to be better. The following year I collected that 'A'.
I think that's the key – learning what not to do. There are no shortage of blustery blog pieces out there from entrepreneurs about the importance of trying new things, failing big, dusting yourself off and then going again. But there is no formula as such. All any of us can do is be bold without being stupid. In other words, committing to a life of conscious acceptance of new challenges. And a willingness to feel vulnerable.
In society we love to fetishise talent, giving awards for excellence and worshipping the best for their possession of something rare, divine and wholly natural. The reality is that the Federers, Picassos, Princes, Streeps and Messis of this world each had to graft and raise their bar time and again before they were acknowledged as greats. It may have taken more or less than the famous 10,000 hours mooted in Gladwell's Outliers, genes may indeed have been the decisive factor, but one thing is certain: the more you practice, the better your chances are of being good at something. At that's what each failure is essentially – practice.
Sir James Dyson didn't become the vacuum king overnight. He screwed up. Over and over again – 5,126 prototypes over 15 years to be precise – before hitting upon a winning formula. Then there's Victoria Beckham, so often the subject of ridicule as the pouting pop star more famous for being a WAG than a talent. Her response? She simply rolled her sleeves up, pursued a passion and transformed herself into an internationally respected fashion designer. That takes a hell of a lot more than talent.
So what are you scared of? Time for an attitude readjustment in society, and that extends all the way from the classroom to the boardroom. I like the idea of a Museum of Epic Failure or an Institute of Brilliant Failures. How about each company publishing an annual failure report? In the meantime, we have the wise words of many inspiring and successful individuals to guide us. Here are my top 12 quotes about failure – some are pithy and poignant observations, others are stories to which we can all relate.
It's live… Listen to the latest Ideastap podcast below, featuring horror stories from comedian Josie Long, Wolf Music records' Matt Neale, Documentally's Christian Payne and actress Anna Dawson.