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  • Vanessa Onyuku-Opukiri

If at first you don't succeed...

Can you really be bothered to try again? The terror, tedium and absolute necessity of failure…

Photo by Nigel Tadyanehondo on Unsplash

In a world where everything is available to us instantly, the concept of perseverance can seem a little old fashioned. Everything seems to come so easily, and social media only serves to perpetrate this myth. We only see what people want us to see – success, happiness, good times. We make sweeping assumptions based on what we see in one photo or a 30 second video clip; somehow we believe that they’ve got it right. We don’t talk about the whole range of human experience, which includes what went wrong. Failure is covert and concealed, and exposed failure is heavily steeped in shame.

Going through the process of failing and growing is isn’t easy. When it comes to personal relationships it’s even more difficult – how to you recover from being let down or rejected? These experiences can be so painful that we come away determined not to feel emotional pain or rejection again. We begin to associate new beginnings with feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. The temptation is to stick with what we know, staying in our so called ‘comfort zones’ that are often not that comfortable at all. We put up walls and become defensive, disengaging from the things we really want.

But if we never step out of our boxes or do things that we find challenging, we never really find out who we are. What happens to us when we are disappointed or rejected? Do we take to our beds, pulling the duvet over our heads vowing never to try again? How long do we spend licking our wounds? Are we able to process our experiences, and take on board the lessons we’ve learnt? Are we brave enough to try again? Disappointment brings us face to face with our vulnerability and often pain from past experiences comes to the surface. This means that the pain of disappointment or failure is not just about the present situation – it’s about every time we have experienced the pain of failure, rejection or disappointment. The intensity of our feelings can take us by surprise, especially when we find it difficult to recover from them. It’s at this point many people seek the help of a counsellor.

In John Maxwell’s classic ‘Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones’, he informs us that ‘the first important step in weathering failure is learning not to personalise it’. Other ‘fail forward’ experts have taken this a step further, and advocated the decoupling of emotion from failure. I’m not sure that’s is possible; I think we should feel something when we fail, but what we feel shouldn’t stop us from changing things up and trying again.

Failure is an essential part of human development. The ability to negotiate disappointment is key in the development of our ‘ego strength’ – a Freudian concept which can be described in well being terms as our ability to maintain a strong sense of self when we encounter emotional distress or conflict. It’s the resilience ‘muscle’, which needs to be exercised regularly in order to become stronger – so trying again, whether we are successful or not – is absolutely essential for good mental health. It’s how we learn, and it’s the story we tell others when they want to know how we got to where we are.

In Dr Brene Brown’s bestselling book ‘Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way we Live, Love, Parent and Lead’ she states that ‘vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat…its understanding the necessity of both. It’s engaging. It’s being all in.’

And if it’s success we want, if we’re not engaged, we don’t have a fighting chance. So whether it’s personal relationships or a business or we owe it to ourselves to learn from our experiences and get back in the fray. Success may not be guaranteed, but we’ll certainly learn something new every time we try.

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