SINCE writing my last post about failure I've read writer and broadcaster Sarah Macdonald's own post on the very same All About W...

SINCE writing my last post about failure I've read writer and broadcaster Sarah Macdonald's own post on the very same All About Women panel discussion and Marcus Westbury's post on his own failings and failures. Marcus and I attended many of the same lectures in our respective bid to gain a degree in communication from the University of Newcastle, so it was interesting to read his take on that time and the impact of one of life’s significant failures – failing at your studies.

In fact, it’s this formative idea of failure that I am interested in. When I was a student the notion of failure was very real, as were the consequences. I can remember children were held back years and lost to the group of peers who progressed to the next year level. Report cards home were clearly graded and there was no ambiguity between an A, through to a D and the unmistakable F. Teachers had no qualms about pointing out your failings and if memory serves me, there always seemed more evidence of these than any of my admirable qualities.

“Could do better” was a common report card comment, echoed by parents who tsk tsk’d if there was even so much as a B-.

Now, I'm not going to pretend I was a dunce. I wasn't  I was a bright student and I liked my studies but failure here wasn't something I was familiar with. Those lessons came by way of life and I defy any parent to tell me they've had an easy road of it: success all the way. Hmmm, didn’t think so.

I was though, I think, a reasonably resilient and independent individual, well supported by my parents and the adult influences around me to test myself and have a go.  But the question I have been asking myself, and peers and colleagues of the same age, is whether we were just the last of a generation that had to create our own pathways in life, and that meant ‘having a go’, or whether the pathways in life were so much simpler then than they are today.

I am watching my own brood get on with life and one of the four has understood her path in life and moved toward it easily and without any real fear it was not the path or that it could fail. The others have struggled to make those decisions in life, and I do wonder, both for them and others I see making those steps toward independence, what part fear has played in that.

So, the question is, does failure have to do with a rather large presence of fear? If so, the converse must be that success is to do with being brave. Hmmmm.

But how brave and can we teach it? Is it possible to give children an understanding of the difference between real fear and real courage? Does it have to be learned as a young person, or is it okay to come to it later in life?

I recall, halfway up a very tall mast on the sail training ship The Young Endeavour, on a cold, windy and wet night being yelled at from the deck. Against the wind and rain I heard: “don’t worry, fear makes you hold on tighter”. No shit Sherlock. I was holding on to that mast with all I had and wondering why an inland girl thought tall ship sailing was something she should ‘have a go’ at. It took me years of applying for a berth and saving my pennies to make the voyage and here I was, quite literally at half-mast and pondering my imminent death.

Calls from the deck were supposed to be encouraging but in my freaked out mind I was thinking holding on tight was neither going to get me to a height of the mast where I could start wrenching the sail in, nor get me down. I was, despite the assurances of my crew members, going to have to let go and I did. I let go, I climbed, I hauled and then I got myself down, shaking like a leaf and near to passing out once I hit the deck. I wasn't the only one. It took three of us to get the sail in and we were white-faced but, in the face of adversity, we had triumphed.

It took courage and, yes, fear, to get the job done but one had to override the other. Courage won out. Did I learn anything? I think I did: to let go. Could I have studied that? Could it have been delivered to me in a curriculum designed to extract a fair and measurable result from all?

Can success be graded? Really?

PS: Am I making any sense, whatsoever? Have I at least given you something to ponder?
PSS: Please, keep adding your comments. Aside from what’s written on my last post, I’ve had emails and Facebook messages, so do keep them coming. 
PSSS: Photo taken at the Rotary Club of Woy Woy lookout overlooking Umina Beach. 

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  1. I was in church on Sunday night and the visiting pastor's message was based on courage and I think your experience bears it out. He said courage is not the absence of fear but in acting despite the presence of fear. How can we teach someone courage? I think by teaching them how not to quit {without very good reason} when the going gets tough. In the midst of a challenge by facing fear often we find strength we didn't know we had in us and get the confidence to go again and succeed.

  2. Courage is my favorite word, and something I’ve been preoccupied with for a couple of years now. I was initially drawn to the notion of bravery in the face of fear; I’ve come to realise that what I love about courage, is its origins in the word ‘heart’. To act from the heart (more than the head) and to be full-hearted in everything I do. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could teach children that – I wish I’d known this as a kid.

    I also think “failure” has to be contextualised. When my marriage of 18 months died, I carried a great deal of shame about it, and felt like an utter failure. But my marriage ending pushed my life in directions I’d never have imagined. I came out stronger, wiser and most importantly – at absolute peace with myself. Through ‘failure’, I found myself, so really, not a failure at all, but a resounding Success.

    This is a great discussion Kate, so glad you’ve shared it with us xx

  3. My early twenties were interesting because I don't think they entailed failure, but it was probably the first time I had really come up against my own limitations so noticeably. School and uni came pretty easily to me, so it wasn't until job time that I started to not be top of the pile. I think learning to deal with this reality with grace has been one of the hardest things to learn as an adult so far. I would say I approached the idea blithely, confidently, without fear, and with the assumption that hard work and initiative would pay off. Sometimes it doesn't, because there are others who are better or more suited to a job, (or your industry goes down the toilet) or whatever, and it was quite a bump to realise that my optimism wasn't necessarily going to pay off. But I'm glad to learn that lesson, and I don't know how I could have learnt it earlier.

    I think we also beat ourselves up so much and call things failure too often. I have so much on my plate at the moment, that I choose one thing (job, a subject at uni, garden, volunteer work) to 'fail' at each week, because I just can't fit them all in. My mum has been strongly encouraging me to redefine this as prioritising rather than failing, but somehow right now the idea that I'm allowing myself to fail a bit is a comfort - it takes the pressure off. But I can see that I'm also being too hard on myself to continue calling it that.

    My next challenge is learning what success is. And realising that for me, success is probably going to be slower paced than I might dream of, and less superwomany than I put pressure on myself to achieve. And that if I focus on the day-to-day success of being happy, social, and stimulated, then that's the most attainable, self-reliant form of success, and therefore perhaps the best one to aim for.

    1. Oh Jen, this is a great comment. I love that bit about the next challenge being learning what success is.

  4. I think that rather than concerning ourselves with how to be 'successful', I think we need to teach our children how to define what success means to them. And frankly society's whole definition needs an upgrade because we seem to be stuck in the 1980s 'power = success' and I honestly think that people want a reboot. I think we are all crying out for 'contentment = success'. x

    1. I like that recipe Bron, but I do wonder what we're telling our children 'contentment' looks like. It's interesting, the more I talk to people and have these conversations about failure, the more I realise they're about fear and I think that's partly fear of what we don't have - certainly in this day and age. Thoughts?