Spa Speakers

Fuel Not Fear: Seeing Failure Differently

Harriet Cummings, our brilliant Vice President of Education and author of the novel “We All Begin as Strangers”

My name is Harriet Cummings and I am a failure.

I’ve failed at many things throughout my life so far – from my grade 7 piano exam, to learning French and baking cheese soufflette.

But why am I telling you this?

Because we live in a society that laments failure when, in actual fact, failure can be a really productive thing. Arguably if you’re never failing in life then you’re not taking enough risks.

I’d like to encourage everyone to see failure differently. Less as something to be ashamed of. More as a necessary part of our lives. Almost a mark of achievement, like a badge of failure.

But first things first, let’s ask ourselves: How did we create this culture of only ever talking about our own successes? And why is it so toxic?

Of course none of us like to talk about the things we’ve done wrong. You don’t see politicians stand up to address the nation, only to list the endless bungles they’ve made. The budgets blown, the lies told… Likewise you don’t see actresses at the Academy Awards strut up to the stage to announce, “Sure – this film was fabulous, but you should’ve seen the last few!”

We all want to be seen in a flattering light, especially in a business context where we need to earn money. And so we tell our life stories, cutting out all the bad bits until it seems that success came easily to us, it was simply a matter of hopping from one victory to the next. The trouble here? Other people can’t help comparing themselves and feeling bad.

I also wonder if this approach impacts on our children too. How many people once dreamt of doing spectacular things like going into space or becoming a champion sports player? I certainly did. I had such high expectations which is wonderful but I worry there’s a danger in suggesting such huge achievements will come easily…

Because later in life we realise things are more difficult than just calling up NASA to say, “Hi there, I’m ready for space!” We fail to achieve our dreams and feel like failures ourselves. And – worst case scenario – we might feel so shocked and despondent that we stop trying altogether.

But I’ll say it again…

If we’re not failing in life then we’re not trying hard enough because we’re not taking enough risks. And if we’re not taking risks and truly challenging ourselves, how can we understand what we’re capable of? What our limits are?

That’s not to say we should congratulate ourselves for suffering the same failure over and over again. We must learn from our mistakes and take a different tact next time.

I’d like to invite you to think of an occasion in life when you failed. It might be something big. It might be something very trivial from earlier today.

First of all, ask yourself: how did you feel?

But, more importantly: what did you do afterwards?

It has to be said, I am a big believer in letting yourself mope for a while. Sometimes it’s okay to feel down and wallow. But then – after a little time and perspective – you can look back. You can revise. And you can jump in again with a different approach.

In case you’re not quite convinced I’d like to finish by giving you some examples from the history of great failures.

  1. Do you know how many times Henry Ford went broke before he finally made it rich with his car assembly line? 5 times.
  2. How about which instrument Beethoven initially struggled with? The violin. His teacher warned his parents he might not be cut out to become a composer.
  3. And who likes J.K. Rowling or Stephen King or Walt Disney? They all experienced several rejections. In fact, Walt Disney was fired from his job at a newspaper for supposedly having no imagination.

As for my own more modest ambitions…

I went on to master my grade 7 piano pieces. I tried that cheese souffle recipe again. Admittedly my French speaking-skills still leave a lot to be desired!

But my point is: Let’s carry on trying without the paralysing fear of failure. Let’s push ourselves to take risks, to understand that failure is an inevitable part of the process.

So why not print out your rejection slips? Tell a friend about something you got wrong? And, most of all, be proud that you tried and that you’ll try again.

Follow on

Harriet Cummings

Novelist, script writer and member at Spa Speakers
Harriet is a debut novelist with a background in history of art and gender studies. As a script writer, she’s had work performed at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, as well as independent venues around London. While studying at Faber Academy, Harriet threw herself into her first novel and hasn’t looked back since. We are very lucky to have her as our Vice President of Education.
Harriet Cummings
Follow on

Latest posts by Harriet Cummings (see all)

Tagged on: