Learning to Fail

June 06, 2024 23:30

I have had the fortune of witnessing and speaking with many high-achievers – both students and friends alike – who struggle with a common problem: an inability to cope with what they perceive to be failure. It does not matter how trivial – especially when viewed in an absolute light – the setback or pitfall may be: it remains the case that any blemish, any imperfection is thus equated with a failure of unimaginable proportions. A failure that cannot be spoken of.

And in the process of castrophisation, these otherwise incredibly ambitious, passionate, and capable individuals thus turn to doubting their own abilities, capacities, and even accomplishments thus far. The fear of failure, as reflected through a catatonic paralysis in face of perceived failure, has led us to develop a deeply seated Impostor Syndrome. We feel like we are “faking it”, yet are so far from “making it”.

As a species, humanity has collectively forgotten the importance of failing, even whilst failure becomes increasingly ubiquitous – thanks to the ever-increasingly demanding standards of measurement, the growing competition across a multitude of dimensions and crisscrossing intersection of cultures – given the advent of globalisation – but also the involutionary logic of late-stage capitalism. In this very process of forgetting, we are thereby un-learning the necessary skillsets, aptitudes, and cognizance required for us to fail successfully. In teaching our youth, our next generations that it is unusual, if not abnormal, to fail, we are setting them up for the very failures that we ostensibly are seeking to prevent.

It is high time we relearnt how to fail. We should normalise, without excusing, failure. We should also encourage scrutiny and evaluation of failure from the intersubjective vantage point. Whilst it is impossible for individuals to achieve absolute neutrality in the way they perceive or interact with others, it remains distinctly feasible that they view their own failures as they would judge others – be neither harsher nor more generous on oneself than one is on others. This principle alone goes a long way in ensuring that we recalibrate our expectations in alignment with sense, decency, and compassion for ourselves.

Learning to fail has a multitude of steps and requirements. The first is the appreciation that failure is part and parcel of growth. Scientists thrive on failures, for every negative result feeds into the bank of data and information that paves the way for their eventual positive result; even if no such positive outcomes accrue, at the very least there is the value of information – which shall prove immensely helpful for those seeking to map out an unbeknownst territory of knowledge. Similarly, most writers and scholars tend to go through numerous drafts before settling upon an eventual version of article or book – indeed, many of my colleagues have found themselves chipping away at thought pieces and contributions through dozens of drafts, only to be told that they have missed the boat when it comes to the submission deadline.

Such frustrations are understandable yet should not be hyperbolised beyond proportion. A test that came back as a “B” and not an “A” does not thereby define one’s academic prowess or lack thereof; no does it render one’s fate and education trajectory sealed in stone. There remains much openness and flexibility – if only one were willing to embrace the grueling uncertainty and gripping emptiness of un-fulfillment and move outside one’s comfort zone in terms of reference. In less academic contexts, a resentful boss and jealous co-workers may make for a deeply perverse combination at one’s workplace. Yet the last thing one should do, is to internalise one’s failure to bond with difficult personalities as a sign of one’s abject depravity and inadequacy. After all, it is such narratives that often reify misogynistic structures affirming that women must purportedly take responsibility for how men (or other women) treat them romantically. To me, the overt responsibilisation and fundamentally futile prescriptions render such norms both distortionary towards the truth and non-conducive towards ameliorating the troubles faced by the individual.

Having established that it is OK to not be OK, and that failure is par for the course, the next step is to encourage individuals to spot and identify where exactly they went wrong in the first place. There is a perilously paradoxical thought at play here: on one hand, for high-achievers, any failure would amount to a personal affront – one that defines and shapes their self-esteem to no end; on the other hand, for those who experience such failures and refuse to internalise failure, they may opt to ignore the problems that have occurred, and opt instead to “keep calm and carry out”. Neither voluntary, wilful ignorance nor crying over spilled milk is useful – Oasis once sang, “Don’t look back in anger!” Look towards the future, then.

Failure need not be permanent. The danger in the highly melodramatic and self-absorbed narratives adopted by some, is the fatalism that they embody: that failure cannot be reversed, that failure is intimidating, and that failure becomes a blemish on one’s CV and track record. Yet this goes back to the point I was making last week: in over-prioritising publicity and how we look to others, we are thereby signing away the rights to our own lives to speculators and audience who are all too keen to opine, but none too willing to share and help.

Let us remember the old adage – failure is the mother of success. Aspiration is the father.

Assistant Professor, HKU