Not Peaking: Things to learn from failure

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.



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2 responses to “Not Peaking: Things to learn from failure

  1. Hi lovely you. I am currently doing what you describe, but I have had tea and a jaffa cake to knock it on the head as much as I can.

    So, let me look: I can say that I had an Oxbridge education, but the next thing is, ‘Oooh but look at my contemporaries – some of whom are, you know, massive and famous and clearly worth more than you and…’ Then I have to remember the little voice in my head. Is it my voice? (Have a look at Caitlin Moran’s pet dog, Eric, in ‘Dear Stranger’ for this.) I would never think this way of someone else, so it hardly represents my core values! And my thinking shifts…

    I’ve done ok. I’ve been many a time scuppered by,depression and mental illness; sometimes I have been barely functioning, or functioning inside intense OCD rituals, which I had felt kept me in a place of safety. I’d lost my closest relatives by the time I was nineteen, including both my parents (although that was complicated to begin with) but I got up and I got better, although every day provides significant challenge. I’ve got a quirky old house (which is cosy even if my mother in law hates it), three lovely boys, I’ve built a business,taught loads of kids travelled a great deal (which I will never regret even if my extended family says I should have been career-building and saving for a more conventional house, see above) and I try to be kind and look after people.

    So with my book, I have to catch and stifle that thought: ‘Ooooh, it isn’t with a major publisher/I’ve started so late/people will find me out and verily discover I’m shite etc,’ Writing is a risk; it exists to be read, doesn’t it? But we cannot live without risk – and risk may be a constituent of joy, in my experience. And, what is more, I have been so cheered and encouraged by the community of writers out there and I am so excited about some of the projects that are unfolding, although goodness knows just yet how I’ll find time to pull them off. But I will, I will.

    You’re amazing Joanna. You plugged away, wrote a fine and subtle first book, which could have suffered from less careful handling, but, in your hands, we saw a story delicately unfold – despite the scorch of its subject matter and how uncomfortable that was in places. I thought you were composed and beautiful when you read from your book and you have said encouraging things to me. Failure is how we learn, I agree. Let’s keep on doing it. And I hope to meet you face to face some day! Anna x

    • Anna, thank you so much for your comments. I found your message really touching (and encouraging), and I wish you lots of luck and love.
      We certainly will meet, I’m sure – I hope to see you at your book launch 🙂 Well done on everything you have achieved. And btw I think your home sounds LOVELY.
      Hugs xxx

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