The tapping of the keys, hammer in the nails that form that non-repudiable word, filling the bearer with a sickening uneasiness and overwhelming dread: F-A-I-L-U-R-E.
Failure isn’t sudden. It is not unlike an epileptic fit. There comes a warning, a moment before, giving you just enough time to try to re-adjust your position so you don’t crack your skull on the pavement. But even if you know that you are about to collapse, you can only try to soften the blow, as nothing will prevent the convulsions and spasms that will ensue.
I remember a screen: a powerpoint that our supportive high school made up for us after we sat our fourth year exams, and were keenly awaiting our results. A red flashing screen.
I still haven’t figured out what the life-asserting element of that presentation was.
The Oxford Dictionary defines failure as Lack of success; an unsuccessful person or thing and– my favourite the action or state of not functioning. Whoever – or whatever – you are, failure defines you. There is something permanently and irretrievably wrong, wrong with you.
This creates the untrue impression that failure is something confined only to certain layers of society, and most definitively is not a part of our St Andrews culture, where only the high-flyers are.
There is a categorisation of failure as something so absolute and all-encompassing, which forms the polarity between success and failure. You either are, or you aren’t.
Yet failure often comes from deviation. I can keep walking the same paths I do every day, and I will know every turn and cobblestone I pass and seem confident to everyone around me. But if I turn off, I will quite likely get lost (maybe that’s just my bad geography, but bear with me) and it might take me longer to get to my final destination. But then where I’m going might change. Or I may find something special: a Roseberry bush, an abandoned Anderson shelter or a view over the houses I’ve passed every day, but never noticed their beautiful burgundy roofs because they were hidden by the steeple.
I don’t know what is the good of me failing my climbing test twice (and still counting) because I couldn’t tie a knot. I don’t see the resilience I’m meant to have gained from being told that no-one has ever failed their test and being looked down upon like the dumbest little insect. I make excuses why it happened, why I couldn’t do it. I can do it when no-one’s looking, I promise. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.
Some of my friends who come from other countries say that the British are generally very polite. I would honestly prefer to have someone swear at me than for them to make their condescension so clear through slight references and stares. For you can respond to a shouting idiot, but being stared down is what creates that nauseating and confining feeling of failure, that brings you back to your primary school self, crushed by the now irrational teacher’s authority.
When I talk about failure, I don’t just mean a bad grade in an exam, being turned down for a job interview or the ‘Oxbridge reject’ status which seems to define some students. There is social failure, failure in minor things, failure in communication. These things are often blown out of proportion by those around us, which makes them far worse than a rational assessment of them would entail.
The now old TV series Boston Legal says at one point: “Success is never so sweet as when accompanied by the failure of a friend”. This is perhaps a darker truth than that provided by the concept of schadenfreude which entails that we, as humans, take pleasure in others’ pain.
It is the social condemnation and exclusion of anyone who they deemed to have ‘failed’ as ‘a failure’ – the verb becoming a noun – is what casts the utter sense of despair when people encounter difficulties. Mistakes are a fact of life. A museum in Sweden – literally called The Museum of Failure– reveals the multitude of unworkable designs, often from successful companies, such as a games console from Apple, showing that failure is not the opposite of success, but that one requires the other.
We should stop condemning and start celebrating failure. Maybe my failed knots where not wrong, but innovative.
Nah – I know they were wrong. But don’t be so hard on me.