Photo: Getty images. Posed by model.
I admire audacious women - those with a fearless attitude to life and a seemingly un-crushable spirit. Yet I rarely feel that way myself. In fact the first piece I wrote for Daily Life was about confidence;I admitted I often lacked it. I therefore found it entirely understandable that I was asked to host a session called ‘How to Fail’ at the Sydney Opera House. ‘Great’, I thought, ‘I’m just the person they think of when they think failure’.
The women I interviewed were everything I felt I wasn’t. Paralympic Champion Louise Sauvage didn’t even have the word ‘failure’ in her vocabulary. It was simply not an option. Company Director and Sustainability Strategist Maria Atkinson felt while she had failed in changing corporate Australia’s attitude to women (a slightly ambitious goal), the setback was useful in redirecting her passion via mentoring and boards.
I greatly admired both Louise’s and Maria’s ability to bump up against major roadblocks in their life, backup, refocus and try again from another angle.
I’ve also come to adore the American and Indian attitude toward ambition and failure. These countries seem to have a more positive response to those who fall over and pick themselves back up again. I would never have had the guts to write a book in Australia, yet my Indian friends looked at me askance when I expressed fear it would bomb. To them, failure was not trying. It’s an attitude I adopted when I wrote ‘Holy Cow’.
But when I returned home that audacity wilted. Tall poppy syndrome is not just a cliché but rather something Australia feeds with a great deal of manure. Resilience is harder to cultivate in a society that can punish people by pushing them off a pedestal way too quickly.
Perhaps we have it wrong.
Being able to own failure shouldn’t be seen as a weakness.
It seems to me those who are successful in life are not afraid to take mature risks. In a rapidly changing world we all need to thrive amongst complexity and great change. To reskill, retrain and be innovative. To take risks. To know when to admit defeat, give up and try something else.
To do that, we need to acknowledge our own errors.
Perhaps that skill will be as important in the innovative, information economy of the 21st century as being able to touch-type.
A friend of mine loves the fact that a senior woman in her office will occasionally loudly and emphatically say “I stuffed up”. She says watching this older woman take responsibility for wrongs gave her the freedom to push herself to bigger challenges despite the risk of mistake. In contrast, the men she works with never ever admit error. Instead, when things go wrong it’s always someone else’s fault. So who has more guts?
I see those who admit fault as powerful.
Perhaps to truly embrace change we need to embrace failure. To admit defeat on one goal means we can truly allow our selves to aim for another. As audience member Kate Moore said in a blog after the panel, ‘failure is a real, tangible and even necessary part of change’. She’s right, there is freedom in failing.
So let’s not be afraid to admit failure. To own it. To live with it. Let’s use it to drive change and rebirth, to learn and do something else. Of course we need to ensure error doesn’t crush us and bleed into other areas of our lives. Yet, denial doesn’t help. Accepting and learning from a loss makes you stronger. I tell it to my kids, now I also tell it to myself.
I expect many will interpret this as wearing weakness as a badge. Yet those who pretend they don’t stuff up are often wearing a cloak that is brittle and frays. If we can admit failure we can understand where fault lies. If we only blame others for our problems we are doomed to be angry, hopeless and irresponsible.
It’s confronting, it’s messy and it’s painful.
But ultimately it’s powerful.