Talking failure – from the heart

This week we bring a more personal slant to the blog with a piece written for us around an individual’s perceptions of failure and the challenges and opportunities it presents. It’s not a new concept we know – now more than ever failure is perceived as less of a weakness and more a pathway to learning, a way of evaluating our decisions and approach both personally and professionally. That said, as leaders there can be a risk of  losing sight of some of the raw emotions that are experienced when living with your own perceived failures at different stages in your career. It can be too easy, however compassionate a leader you feel you are, to be so focused on the organisational and commercial impact of processes and decisions that one loses sight of the person at the receiving end of those potentially life changing rites of passage.

So, we thank editor, copywriter and heritage professional, Mary Addyman (PhD) for sharing her personal account of how deeply affecting failure can feel, and where the complexities of a year like 2020 has only added to the intensity of those feelings for her.

At Maier we often ask leaders and managers to take a breath, think of what the impact of some decision making can really be and just ‘put yourself in the shoes of others, even if only for a short time…’ And that is what we would ask you to do here as you read Mary’s account of her perception of failure and what it has taught her.

In Mary’s words…

It feels risky to write about failing.

Publicly acknowledging one’s inabilities seems inadvisable in professional circles. It’s counter to the self promotion that networking demands of us. It might border, even, on a ‘pity party’ – self-indulgent, and not especially helpful. How could speaking publicly about failing at all the things I try to be good at possibly convince anyone to invest time or money in me?

But I do think talking about failure is necessary. What does failure do to us?

There is a public discourse about failure, but it’s populated largely by successful people. On her podcast ‘How to Fail’, Elizabeth Day interviews Booker Prize winners, professional athletes, famous broadcasters, and well-known actors about the failures which have taught them ‘how to succeed better’. Day sets out to normalise failure, and to rewire how we perceive it – as something that might have some positive outcomes, instead of wholly negative.

When you feel like a failure, though, it’s difficult to listen to a critically acclaimed writer talk about their experience of obstacles or embarrassments. It’s not easy to take succour from that, because feeling a failure is not a hopeful state. It’s a dead end, a little pit you sit in.

This has been my experience, at least.

I’ve felt like a failure because after attaining a doctorate in the arts, I’ve done precious little with it. I’ve felt stuck because I’ve watched my university cohort doing significant and meaningful work while I’m confused and floundering. I earn the same money I earned temping eight years ago. I’ve applied for 28 jobs in my field in the last three years and not been offered a single one.

This last one is the most significant. Striking out, time and again, is hard. I’ve sold myself as the perfect candidate 28 times and imagined myself in 28 new roles. I’ve done my ‘price of living’ research for dozens of new places around the UK. I’ve read 28 sets of business plans and corporate strategies and scoured Linkedin to learn about 28 different interview panels. It’s exhausting. I’m actually a fairly resilient and optimistic person! But these repeated knockbacks deflated me.

Close colleagues (and some kindly interviewers) reiterated how tough a job market it was – ‘It’s not you. You performed well. It’s just that you’re competing with some very experienced candidates. You’ll get there.’ The fifth time I heard this, I wanted to hurl the phone out the window. The 28th time, I just nodded silently. I stopped telling anyone when I applied for jobs, finding it easier to deal with the sense of failure on my own.

So I learned to sit with my failure.

It was destructive; it made me bitter, and envious, and in that fug it can be difficult to see ways out. Some people experience failure and it renews their determination; not so for me. It affected my work, because instead of looking for opportunities within my current role to develop my skills, or to raise others up, I was looking for shortcuts and exit routes. My job hunt became less focussed. I applied for unsuitable roles in unsuitable places. I forgot to be good at the thing that I do and to try to create opportunities for fulfilment there.

Breaking the pattern

Over the last year, though, I’ve been forced to break that pattern. Amongst other things, I was furloughed from my job for 6 months or so, and I had to make a conscious effort to separate my sense of value from my perception of my professional success. Counselling helped, nature helped, reading helped, and talking with friends helped the most.

The break from work that furlough forced upon me helped me to rediscover a truth that my  failure fug had been obscuring– that we are not just our work. And our perception of other people’s ‘success’ rarely encompasses the entirety of their personhood. This is something that Day’s podcast really helpfully reminds us of – professional success is rarely accompanied by a family, romantic, creative, or physical life unblemished by ‘failure’. I was going to have to expand my understanding of what success was if I didn’t want to spend the furlough period feeling bad.

It’s not work I can tell anyone how to do: for me it’s involved unlearning internalised value systems that structure my worldview; understanding my privilege; finding joy.

Recognising success

But I do know that I feel much better now that I am able to recognise success in other parts of my life. I feel less resentful, more open to opportunity, more fulfilment in the job that I have. I feel more able to learn, willing to listen, and ready to help.

I’ve even, begrudgingly, admitted that failure has taught me something.

I got interviews for most of the 28 jobs I applied for. Previously, I’d understood my repeated post-interview failure as a terrible indictment of my in-person interview skills (and, by extension, my character and personhood). But now I am more able to recognise success, I choose to understand that I’m skilled at writing applications (regardless of the suitability of the job). I write persuasively (sometimes creatively). I can interpret the criteria and make the material fit. I’m a good communicator. I can get people to take notice.

I’m starting to re-fashion some of my aspirations in light of this. During furlough I volunteered writing and editing funding applications for a friend’s charity, and I loved it. I could use my writing skills to enable other people to do brilliant, meaningful work. I’m starting similar volunteering for another charity, too. Supporting causes I believe in is fulfilling in a way that job titles aren’t.

Maybe I’ll embark on a new career. Maybe I’ll fail. But it’ll be OK, because there’s more than one route to success.

Mary Addyman PhD
Editor, copywriter and heritage professional

Thanks to Mary for sharing her thoughts and feelings so eloquently. As ever, we would love your own reactions to this piece or indeed any advice you would offer to someone like Mary.