How to be a failure

It’s very hard to think that I might have given everything, and it might not be enough

— Nathan Fagan-Gayle, X Factor UK contestant 2012

It’s pretty clear to me now that I won’t ever play football for Liverpool, but I never really tried that hard to make it happen.

What hurts more is when you really go for it, and it’s one of your real strengths, but you still fail – like when I wanted to study at Cambridge for my MA but didn’t get the grades.

I revised really hard for three months solid but only scored 63% overall – the exact average for my year, but below the 65% I needed to get into Cambridge.

It hurt because I’d always been good at academic stuff, and now I had failed.

Nathan failed too. He was knocked out before the live show stage and I only remember his name because I wrote down the quote. Hopefully he’ll bounce back.

The hardest thing when failure happens is to prevent it from defining you. You are not ‘a failure’ even if you fail. The phrase ‘I’m a failure’ = defining your entire self as such. In fact you only failed at that one thing. Not at life as a whole!

It’s hard to think like that. A few years later I applied for a PhD at Cambridge – deep down, one of the reasons was probably because I wanted to have another shot at being accepted.

This time I was – but I turned them down. Perhaps it felt like revenge, I don’t remember. There were other reasons too. But the lizard part of you always prefers it when you’re in control. Yeah, it was definitely me that broke up with her.

Here’s what I learnt from that whole experience about how to fail:

A) It happens

Even after a long run of good results, and a megaload of revision, I still couldn’t reach a high enough mark.

B) It’s ok to feel sad about it

Failure hurts, but that’s ok so long as it doesn’t swallow up your whole definition of yourself.

C) Your brain adjusts fast

If you don’t let the failure consume you, it will be forgotten or assimilated soon enough. I hadn’t thought about not failing to get into Cambridge for a long time before starting this post. Brains are good at adapting if given time.

D) Always consider quitting

There’s no shame in moving on to something else. Most people say ‘Just keep trying and you can achieve anything!’. That’s bad advice: (1) it’s not true and (2) it assumes that what you want now won’t change in future. Bad bad bad. Moving on should always be an option.

E) There’s always another way of doing it

I did my MA anyway, and was very fortunate to do it at Nottingham. I was grateful they accepted me at short notice and tried to repay them by working hard. I made some great friends there too. And I was still able to get a PhD offer from Cambridge a few years later, even though I never planned to apply again after the MA rejection.

Each failure is specific to the circumstances at the time. Tick-tock, times change.

A million tiny things happen every day that mix everything up. It’s like a kaleidoscope that never stops. Every night there’s a little shift round to the left or right. So everything changes a little every day. Failure is either temporary or irrelevant.


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Author: toddmgreen

I really like making internet projects. I work on apps, games and websites at a TV company. I write stuff, make stuff, and accidentally break stuff. You should probably follow me on Twitter - @toddmgreen.

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