I don’t do failure well.
My first experiences of failure came in my late teens – the Oxford entrance exam, and my first driving test – and were quite a shock to the system.
This makes me sound a bit spoilt, life-wise, and there probably were smaller setbacks before then (I didn’t win in the finals of the Haven holidays talent contest, also a bit of a blow). But the real truth is my ‘success’ up to then was the result of two factors: I happened to be good at the main thing you get measured in up to the age of eighteen i.e. academia; and, crucially, I didn’t try things I knew I would fail at. As a rule, I still don’t.
It’s the reason I’ve never been skiing (I know I’ll be rubbish at it for ages before mastering it, which an inner voice tells me I never will, so why try?) and never done any serious running until a couple of years ago.
At the weekend I was part of a team aiming to complete the famous 3 Peaks challenge, and I fell at the first hurdle.
The 3 Peaks involves climbing the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon) within 24 hours (including driving time between the peaks). It’s a very, very tough challenge and only around 40% of people achieve the 24 hour goal.
It became obvious only 40 minutes or so into the Ben Nevis climb that I was considerably slower than the rest of the team and I made the decision to pull out so as not to hold them back.
People talk about ‘highs and lows’ and in those hours waiting for the rest of the team to return, sitting at the foot of that mountain, I felt very, very low. I was miserable. In my head, one failure got rolled into another: my career, my relationships, even my inevitable small (daily) failings as a mum.
I wanted to run away; get on a train and go home. Because failure does that to you – makes you feel you can’t bear to be touched by others’ success. But I’m glad I didn’t run.
During those hours of waiting, one of the things I reflected on was my experience as a writer and of being published. I thought back to everything I’d read, and written, about goals and realised I’d been continually moving the goalposts for myself. I don’t think I’m alone in this. You start off with the goal of finishing your book; next, all you want in the world is to find an agent. Got an agent? Great! Now you can worry whether you’ll find a publisher. But it turns out it’s not enough to be published, even though this was your dream since childhood; it needs to be a bestseller, get rave reviews, be made into a movie, and so on. The finish line, the line that represented happiness, didn’t exist. I had no time to enjoy successes because I was too busy looking ahead, looking for more.
I’d always considered myself a very positive person but I realised I am very self-critical and many of my less constructive habits – procrastination, I’m looking at you – result directly from a deep fear of failure. If I don’t write the book / submit the story, I don’t risk rejection. If I don’t enter into a new relationship, no-one can hurt me again. The walls are up.
Back to the weekend. I sat out Scafell Pike and, being ‘out’ of the challenge, I suppose I didn’t have to tackle Snowdon. But I did. We took the road less travelled, following the ‘Rhyd-ddu’ path, a route that started off easy and ended up hard, like a bloody great metaphor for life etched out of stone and topped with clouds. I made it to the top, and made it to the bottom, a small victory in the context of what my team-mates had endured and achieved, and therefore a bittersweet experience but one I’m glad I didn’t let myself miss.
I have to take responsibility for what happened, or rather, didn’t happen on Saturday. I hadn’t trained well enough. Will alone won’t get you up three big mountains at pace, or ensure you achieve your lifelong dream (otherwise all those X Factor contestants who cry “but you don’t understand how much I want this” would go on to win). Success requires hard work and there are no short cuts.
And failure? You can wallow, or you can learn from it. You can be proud and grateful for the things you do achieve. I try to tell myself the things I say to other people: If you even finish writing a book, you have achieved more than the millions who only talk about it. If you climb even one mountain, you are lapping the people on the sofa.
And you can always try again. Those mountains aren’t going anywhere.