Reading, Work

Three failures (and why that’s a good thing)

I’ve been reading How to Fail: Everything I’ve Ever Learned From Things Going Wrong by Elizabeth Day recently. I’m not sure how I stumbled across it but it’s a really interesting read.

It’s definitely taking precedence over my reading homework for my future leaders initiative:

I think we all dwell on our “failures” but what really resonates with me in this book is the message that, without those failures, we wouldn’t be where we are now. Elizabeth Day started off thinking about failure in a series of podcasts, which she still publishes regularly. In these podcasts, she interviewed celebrities and asked them to talk about three failures. So I’m going to write about three of mine now.

Failing at Friendship

I’m sort of terrible at friendship. I’m not a bad friend, I love my friends dearly and I’m a “giver”. But some of my most important friendships haven’t endured.

I look around me and see groups of friends who are in their forties and have known each other since primary school, still see each other at least every week, go on mini-breaks together, whose kids are similarly best friends. Sure I’m still in touch with a couple of friends from primary school – enough that we meet up if I’m home at my mum’s for a while. Of course, Facebook gives the sense of still being connected with other people I was a child with, but I couldn’t describe them as friends any more. The same pretty much goes for my high school friends, if not more so. My very best friends when we were 16-18 remained friends for the first year of university and then drifted apart. I’m not sure whether they’re still close or whether it was me that drifted off. Generally, the same is also true of my university friends, we’re all still in touch through Facebook but my bestest friend, my bridesmaid, my BFF suddenly withdrew from our friendship six and a half years ago and I don’t know why. I send her messages from time to time, but get little back and she never reaches out to me.

As I’ve got older, I’ve got better at maintaining those friendships. The people who we were close with during our PhDs are still amongst our good friends and we meet up a couple of times a year.

But what’s caused the separations, unconscious and slow, or deliberate and immediate? I think geography has a lot to do with it. We all came from a small depressing town and many of us ran away as soon as we could – strangely I’ve remained closest to a couple of people who stayed. Maybe we ran too far or too fast and the strings of friendship gave way? I don’t doubt that we had many shared experiences through our university years, we just weren’t sharing them together. I know that I can be rather intense (boyfriend failures as a result of that I will not discuss), maybe my absolute conviction that a friendship is forever was just too much for some of them?

My best friend from my degree course, went off to work straight after graduating but we had children at the same time, both went back to full time jobs, got married 6 months apart, bought our first homes around the same time. Our lives were very parallel, just 200 miles apart. When we met up it felt like no time. I still don’t understand why I was suddenly not someone she wanted to know. I spent a lot of nights crying, grieving over that friendship.

I think that all those friendships that didn’t endure, and those that did, gradually taught me to be protective of my feelings, to be stronger and more independent, happier with being alone or just with himself. More self-sufficient I suppose. I still struggle to know the difference between an acquaintance and a friend, I’m just less surprised and less hurt when I find that I’ve been mistaken.

These days, I don’t feel such a strong need to be surrounded by people. I no longer value myself according to how many people I’m friends with. I have a few really good friends who I feel really comfortable with, with fewer old friends that I see from time to time. But those “mates” are a thing of the past, that’s less tiring, takes less effort, and results in less pain.

Failing at Fulfilling Ambitions

When I was 15, I wanted to be a doctor with Medecins sans Frontiers or else Jane Austen.

When I was 20, I wanted to be a professor of chemistry.

When I was 24, I wanted to be a research chemist in a lab.

I haven’t done any of those things.

I wasn’t going to get the A level results to do medicine at university. So, I studied chemistry instead – no regrets there! I still maintain that chemistry is the only science. Biology is big chemistry, physics is tiny chemistry and maths is just a tool to explain it all.

I realised that (20 years ago) women in academic research were either averagely successful but unmarried and childless, or part-time, scraping-by mothers. I wanted children, so I knew academia wasn’t an option for me.

I left my PhD planning to stay in the lab, but got a “stop gap” job as a technical writer for a science-based software company instead. I’m still in the same job 15 years later.

Not getting those A level results, or a research position counted as “failures” at the time. My life wasn’t going where I wanted it to go. But instead it brought me to where I am now. I’m in a job that I do really enjoy (ignoring the resident arsehole and period scary opportunities), I finish most days satisfied with what I’ve done and most of the people I work with a genuinely great. I wish I could say to my 16-year-old self that sometimes life takes an unplanned road and that’s a good thing because you’ll get to see and do a whole bunch of different things that weren’t in the plan, but are really fun.

Failing at Driving

Ahem, I failed my driving test four times.

I didn’t pass until I was 24. It’s a bit embarrassing and himself still occasionally mentions it to support some argument about how he’s a better driver than me.

Now where’s the positive in that? This one’s a bit trickier. Not passing my driving test at 17 meant I spent my whole last year of sixth form on buses and cadging lifts (I’m an August birthday, so at least it wasn’t two whole years as it would have been if I had a September birthday). I tried before I went to university, twice during my university holidays and then once during my PhD, then finally passed. I suppose really what this taught me more than anything was how to fail. In my early 20s I’d dealt with the disappointment of not following a path to a career in medicine but I hadn’t got a lot of experience of actual failures. Rarely had I been judged and found wanting. So rarely that I think the only other exam I’d failed by age 17 was my year 9 art – I’m not creative at all. Otherwise, I’d at least passed but mostly done pretty well at every test and exam throughout school. I got an A and three and a half Bs at A level, then a first class degree. Stark, unmasked failure was all new to me when I first failed my driving test and was still pretty novel by the fourth time. I think it was really important to learn that I couldn’t just avoid the things I wasn’t good at (like art, which I didn’t pursue at GCSE strangely enough).

Some things don’t come naturally to me but do need to be mastered. Driving is one for sure, and I’ve got the hang of that now.

Well, so long as we ignore the wonky lamp post on the other side of town where I “missed” the exit of a mini-roundabout when sleep deprived by a one year old small boy.

And anyway, I may have written off a car at 5 miles an hour and dented another one when I was first driving, but himself used to go through two windscreens a year and is a muntjac deer murderer. I’ve never killed anything when driving, so I’m clearly better than him. Right?

What are you pleased to have failed at?

Love from Smell xxx

28 thoughts on “Three failures (and why that’s a good thing)”

  1. Thanks for sharing, we all have our failures that we carry with us, mine has to be the same with work, I have wanted to go back to uni to do an MSc but I’m lacking the motivation to sign up hopefully I will do it before I’m 40 🙂

    Nic | Nic’s Adventures

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My experiences in friendship has been so much similar to yours. And I feel connected to you because of that. This is a really good post. I guess I will also write about my three failures in my personal journal or maybe in my blog. You inspired me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This seems like an interesting book. I used to be so upset about certain failures. I now look at them as lessons. When it comes to friendships, I look at it as being the result of change. When we change/grow sometimes outside of us will change to reflect that as well. Some people are the same person their entire lives and so perhaps they may have more stability on their connections. Just a thought. Thanks for your transparency.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’s the same for me with my friendships. I’ve either lost touch with people I never thought I would or I’ve got social media friends. I’ve only got a few, close friends. I’ve stopped beating myself up about failed friendships. People change and move on and I’m grateful when I had them as friends.
    I’ve failed in quite a few ways but one area where I’m pleased I have failed is in romantic relationships. If my other relationships had worked out, I would have never met my partner of over 20 years!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think anything like this book that get us to change our mindset or see things differently (especially with regards to failure) are so encouraging and inspirational. I have some work to do with this myself so I think I’m going to have to get this!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I think most of us can relate to friendships and ambition. Friends change and drop off from uni times; ambitions often change with life. And probably everyone can interchange driver’s test (if they didn’t have the same result) with something else. Interesting post, thanks for this.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Searingly honest as always. Friendships can be really tricky & painful when they go wrong/end.
    In answer to your question, i’m not sure. I sometimes wonder how my life would have turned out if I’d been more confident and more ambitious when I was younger.

    Liked by 1 person

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