By Fatima Ahmed
I have failed more times than I can remember. My failures far outnumber my successes. Failure has haunted me throughout my adult life. As someone who is a perfectionist I find failure particularly hard. It’s a bitter pill (more like brick) for me to swallow. And as someone who’s failed many times before (medical school exams, postgraduate exams, unpublished papers, and countless relationships), somehow, it doesn’t get easier with each defeat.
In an effort to feel better about yet another unsuccessful endeavour, I’ve often inadvertently found myself drawn to scrolling through reams and reams of intoxicating feel good posts that decorate the popular pages of Instagram. Loved by my social media obsessed millennial generation (as evident by the hundreds of thousands of followers these pages attract), they might involve quotes from so-called ‘influencers’, the digital superstars of our time, or in an attempt to add meaning and value where there is none, aphorisms by historical luminaries. These inspirational quotes are slapped beneath a perfectly orchestrated image of someone who apparently has their shit together. “It’s all about the journey“, “only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly” are words that I struggled to comprehend when each failure felt like drowning. Where each time I tried to pick myself up was akin to a rubber dinghy trying to fight 60ft waves in a particularly bad storm. The rubber dinghy is no match for these waves and I’m invariably flung from the useless vessel and it’s just me and the water and the giant waves and I’m struggling to survive, coming up briefly for one brief gasp of air at a time before being submerged again into the cruel depths of defeat. It’s exhausting and it’s hard and it takes an insurmountable amount of strength to pick myself up and just. keep. going. Or swimming. Or at the very least, keep my head above the water.
Over the last few months I’ve been at an impasse in my career. I’d made bold decisions and taken steps to change its direction, before grinding to a painful halt. It’s been a tumultuous journey fraught with an abundance of self doubt, anxiety, but above all the very fear of failure itself. “What if I fail”. “What if my failure is public and I’m humiliated”. “What if all I manage to achieve is a reputation in how not to do something”. “What if no one takes me seriously”. What if, what if, what if. Two simple words that have kept me wide awake at night paralysed at the endless possible outcomes of “what if”. It’s this most recent challenging juncture in my life that has forced me to reflect on the very nature of failure and my difficult relationship with it in the hope that I might overcome this crippling fear.
There is beauty in failure.
Drawing on my experiences over the years I’ve slowly come to realise this. It has taught me lessons; the kind of which come only through lived experience. We can either sink or swim. At this moment in time I’m managing to at least stay afloat. I’ve yet to master the swimming part. Surfing? Now that would be ideal.
Each time I’ve failed at something, I’ve in fact learned something new about myself that I did not know before. I gain a depth of insight into who I am, which no amount of success would have ever taught me. And with insight come key lessons on how I should change for the better.
This insight is priceless.
Failure, I have also found, has a way of forcing me to wake up from the slumber of routine and monotony of life to re-evaluate the status quo. It stops us dead in our tracks to unveil hidden truths. It’s a state of wakefulness and alertness. After being asleep for some time, such a state can be alarming and distressing. Being confronted with these truths can be a painful experience, one that I know all too well. But time and time again I’m reminded that it’s only through this pain that I can begin to learn, perhaps even evolve. The pain exists to bring my undivided attention to the malady that’s calling out for urgent treatment. Once it has my attention I can start taking the necessary steps that are needed to fix things, with clear focus and direction.
There’s something else quite beautiful about failure. And that is its ability to open up doors of opportunity I had not seen before. New paths materialise that did not exist, ones that could be better for me. Different possibilities emerge that force me to think about things in a new way. Amidst the perceived chaos of failure there can be order and an underlying wisdom I might have missed had I been successful instead. Silver linings offering a novel, indeed better way of doing things.
Failure keeps us on our toes, nimble, and able to adapt to changing tides, steering our life accordingly in order to reach our end goal and avoid getting swept off course along the way. It has a way of keeping us grounded and humble, nothing is guaranteed, a freeing thought in itself.
What’s more, failure and success are inextricably linked. To believe otherwise is to set yourself up for unrealistic expectations and inevitable disappointment. These two bedfellows exist to give life perspective, and meaning. We cannot have one without the other. The sweetness of success is sweeter once the bitterness of failure has been tasted. Throughout this current challenging juncture in my life I’m reminded that failure is inevitable. It is not a matter of if I fail, but when. It’s crucial, therefore, that I, we, change our mindsets to accept that it is a part of the fabric of life and not allow our fear of it to barricade us from realising our dreams and full potential.
Our ability to succeed depends on how we perceive and handle failure.
I’m reminded of a story I once heard (1) in which Rumi tells of an ant crawling across a Persian carpet in a mosque. The ant is struggling and complains to God:
What is this, these bumps, and strange colours and patterns; this must have been created just as a meaningless obstacle course! What a futile thing to have made.
The carpet maker, looking at it from above can see its reality, the beautiful patterns and its purpose, and is able to see that the whole thing is perfect and good(1). Failure can feel like we’re the ant, struggling through the carpet of life, climbing and falling and veering off course, seemingly going nowhere; but, step back and look at the whole as the carpet weaver does, and we might just be able to see the bigger picture. It’s difficult to comprehend this until you’ve actually tried and failed, and then succeeded, and thereby gained the privilege of insight and of being able to look back at your struggle to get to where you are. Still, the anecdote serves as a welcome reminder and cool comfort during those difficult times.
From unveiling hidden truths to opening up new doors of opportunity, to teaching us more about ourselves, the lessons that can be learnt from failure are countless and priceless if we open our eyes and ears and hearts and are willing to learn and modify our mindsets, decisions, behaviours, actions, and paths accordingly. The process is painful, but survive it, and great things can subsequently happen.
This is because the process is transformative.
It takes us from one state to another. For real change to occur something has to happen which shakes our very existence to allow room for meaningful, transformative, change to take place. As an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist it’s difficult for me not to draw comparisons with the process of labour:
For a baby to be born it has to survive labour. It’s called labour because it’s bloody hard work for both the child and its mother. Strong contractions can cause foetal distress, each one momentarily cutting off oxygenation to the baby. This hostile environment can last hours. At the final stages the baby is forcibly expelled from a tiny passage, the ‘birth canal’, before being welcomed into the world. The passage is so small that its limbs are contorted and head squeezed thoroughly enough that it is actually re-shaped and moulded to fit the shape of the narrow passageway it has to eventually get through. Once through it lands face first into a pile of steaming shit, before being caught by the midwife or Obstetrician and rubbed vigorously to force it to cry; as if it hadn’t already been through enough! And don’t get me started on the physiological changes that occur following that first cry; the infant’s entire circulatory system is re-plumbed to adapt and thrive in the new, entirely alien, world.
It’s remarkable what babies have to go through to get here. The stakes are high; they quite literally face death before they’re even given the chance at life outside the womb or oxygen starvation and a lifetime of disability.
But most of them make it. And we’re all here to give testament to that. So, if we’ve all survived the painful, transformative change of labour to get here, then surely we have it in us to get through failure and get back up after each defeat.
It’s only through doing and trying and failing and trying again differently that we can learn and evolve. Those who have mastered anything have done and continue to do just that. “If you’re not failing, you’re not innovating enough”, Elon Musk; a man who’s astronomical success is built on an equally colossal amount of failure. Much of it public too.
So learn and adapt your mindset and accept the inevitability of failure. Sit up and pay attention to this wise friend trying to teach you valuable lessons. Fail. Fail often and learn fast; build a raft, hell build a ship if you must, learn to surf, punch the fear of failure in the face and just keep going. You’ve got this.
1) Abdal Hakim Murad, from his lecture ‘Reliance on Allah’.