The first thing I ever remember failing at was my driving test.
I’d always had academic success (although I did have to work for it) – I was one of those people who was above averagely good at everything, but exceptional at nothing. My parents were very supportive and proud of me, instilling me with plenty of determination and self belief. I just assumed whatever I put my mind to I would succeed at.
I loved driving, and my driving lessons. I had an exceptional instructor (he was an ex police instructor and examiner), but on the day of the test it just didn’t work out and I failed.
I was shocked; he was furious with me and refused to take me for any more lessons – instead he passed me on to his daughter who was setting up as a driving instructor too. I remember a real sense of shame, but actually in the month between my first and second driving test, having had the wind taken out of my cocky sails, I learned much more about driving well and safely.
I passed the second test easily – in part because it was at a much busier time of day and so I was focussed on driving, rather than it being a test!
It was some years before I failed anything again – and then when I did it had a huge impact on my self esteem and sense of identity.
Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I really wish I’d had more experience of learning how to deal with ‘failure’. I’m still not very good at it, although I’m getting better – in fact it’s a key development area for me just now!
In one of my coaching supervision sessions, when I was being very hard on myself, my wise supervisor asked “how can you allow yourself to fall down each day?” When I accept that failure is a possibility, indeed an opportunity, I become much more human, much wiser, humorous, joyful, playful, compassionate. That place where only perfection is acceptable is rigid, fragile, unapproachable – and full of shame. And it’s a fantasy.
These learnings have been underlined for me this week as I’ve been trying to support my daughters with their own challenges. I see how they too set very high standards for themselves.
My eldest has just turned 17, so she’s had her first two driving lessons herself. She’s been furious with herself that she’s not instantly ‘mastered’ the incredibly complex skill of driving, frustrated with being a ‘beginner’ (even though actually she’s made a fabulous start). In her mind any form of failure just isn’t acceptable – she’s her mothers daughter, but unfortunately has taken it to the next level.
And my 10 year old had her Judo Black Belt grading. She was incredibly nervous and anxious in the run up – her fear was huge. It sounds perverse to say, but I’m pleased she didn’t get through the grading this time. We celebrated anyway, because we’re proud of her for overcoming her fear and taking the grading. I’m hoping it’s a good early lesson in ‘failure’ – nothing bad has happened as a result, she’ll get other chances, there’s certainly no shame!
What I wish for both of them, and for me as well, is to relax and enjoy the journey, whatever the outcome.
Yes, to take pleasure and pride in our achievements, to stretch ourselves and go beyond – but to know it’s not the achievements that define who we are, but how we accept, embrace and smile at the possibility of failure.