By Caitlin Kelly
In the shiny, buffed world of social media, how often do you see someone — or do it yourself — admitting to failure?
It’s a parade of perfection, and one that can make any of us feel like a total loser for not being as thin/pretty/well-dressed/groomed/wealthy/well-employed/living on a Greek island…
Loved this New York Times piece about why we need to talk more openly about it:
In a new working paper, co-author Alison Wood Brooks, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, found that discussing failures can help to humanize the sharer by making them seem more approachable and relatable in the workplace. It also generally increased levels of so-called “benign envy,” which can motivate and drive employees to perform better.
However, the enemy of benign envy, according to the paper, is “malicious envy”: The type of envy others feel when we talk about our achievements much more often than our struggles. Projecting that image of perfection can be especially harmful for those in leadership positions who risk coming across as disingenuous, Ms. Brooks and her colleagues found.
A simple way to understand this is to look at the polished-though-unrealistic lives many of us present on social media.
One of the most powerful lessons I learned last year — despite their towering reputations lasting centuries — is that Japanese print-making legend Hokusai, Michelangelo and even Leonardo da Vinci all suffered setbacks and penury and failure.
I’ve spoken here a few times about the many failures I’ve experienced in my life and career, but let’s review a few.
The only true value of failure is learning something useful.
— Moved to Montreal age 30 for a staff newspaper job I had doubts about (not a very good paper.) Was gone within 18 months after some unpleasant interactions with my boss and a union that shrugged and wouldn’t help.
Lesson: trust your gut.
— Moved to a small town in New Hampshire, pre-Internet. Despite efforts, made no friends and, again, left within 18 months to move to New York, just in time for a recession.
Lesson: I’m not a rural girl!
— Took six months, crying every day, to get a magazine editing job after cold-calling hundreds of strangers.
Lesson: Re-starting your career in a highly-competitive industry in a highly-competitive city with zero social connections is really hard.
— Married in 1992, husband walked out 1994.
Lesson: Don’t marry someone who won’t do the work to go the distance.
— Have applied many times for competitive fellowships like the Knight-Bagehot (to study business at Columbia), the Alicia Patterson (tried three times), a Canada Council grant (worth $20,000 Canadian) multiple times.
Lesson: Thousands of competitors want the same bag of goodies. You can keep trying, even if you feel pissed off and humiliated.
— Spent many hours in 2018 producing two full book proposals, both of which were rejected by five agents. Fun!
Lesson: Intellectual growth — creative growth of any kind — is almost always going to be unpaid, speculative and suck time away from paid work. How much do you want it?
I admit, though — I’m much less amused by failure at this point in my life.
I want to stop working within five years, ideally sooner, which places a lot of pressure on me to to do good work and well-paid work and work that I really care about and am proud to have produced.
All of which now run directly counter to current industry trends in journalism.
I’m not someone who spends her days consumed by envy when I see social media brag-fests. Sure, it hurts to see people winning, especially if you feel like you’re losing. But it doesn’t accomplish anything to focus on their success and your (relative) failure.
No one succeeds alone, so I’m also attentive to people’s headwinds and tailwinds — the many invisible forces beyond talent, skill and experience — that can propel some people to massive/quick success while the rest of us struggle.
That might be family money, social capital, alumni connections, anything that offers a leg up.
Some of my younger friends, in their 20s and 30s, end up consumed with envy at their peers’ glittering achievements, which is a terrible distraction. I do think, once you’re past 40 or 50, life should — ideally! — have brought you some of the rewards you once coveted.
A feeling of success, despite the inevitable setbacks and failures we all experience.
I’ve also found that some things we’re completely obsessed with at 25 or 35 or 45 can shift so that not getting it — i.e. what we once would have deemed a failure — is no longer a goal we even want.
It’s too easy to focus solely on one area of accomplishment — work — rather than being proud that you’ve been a great friend or spouse, have managed to regain and maintain good health, have planted a thriving garden.
We’re all diamonds, multi-faceted, and several sides will always catch the light.
We also all have many successes, if we take time to notice and celebrate them.
How do you handle failure?
Do you obsess and freak out or just move ahead?