A Guide to Failure

Did the title of the post make you curious? I mean, who guides you to failure, right? Initially, I had thought of writing a simple yet bland article on “how to cope with failure”. But, then when I thought of the heavily loaded word failure I realised that there are so many tangents to it, that just coping with it barely covers the scope of it all. Hence, this guide tries to cover various aspects of something we all go through, struggle to get past and are yet enriched by – failure, starting with the bare bones basic of what exactly constitutes failure.

What is failure?

When you start by looking at the definition of failure, Google is happy to throw together the most confounding set of words, citing the Oxford dictionary. Sample this – “lack of success”. Like seriously? Don’t we all know that the antonym of failure is success. Wikipedia happily expands on it with more lofty words like – Failure is the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective, and may be viewed as the opposite of success.

Like so many things in life including success, I believe failure is personal. There are certain events or acquisitions or achievements that we build up and work towards` in life. When they do not fructify as per our imagination, we define it as failure. Although, for a lot of people, failure is more societal than individual, which I think is more troublesome.

Another aspect to failure is that not all of them are equal. Some, like maybe missing a flight, are fairly miniscule in the scheme of things (I can see my father roll me eyes here!). However, failing at things which are far more important in life and on which you may have invested much more time and effort, like a job or a relationship potentially land a far more intense sucker punch.

My string of failures

You may be wondering what exactly equips me to write about failure? I believe that I have a fair list of memorable failures, some which still have a capacity to either wound me or amuse me just recalling my reaction to it. While there are quite a few, to keep it short and to ensure I don’t make this post sound like a sob story, I will keep it limited to three instances.

The first real sense of failure that I got was almost 16 years back, while in school. They made a big deal about a lofty designation of school prefects in the last year of school. So much so, that just to distinguish the chosen set from the rest of the ordinary folks, they even got a special neck tie to prove their worth (which funnily enough they wore even in the stifling heat of Delhi!). While in academics I have generally meandered around the upper middle category, I and most people around me believed I was a sure shot candidate considering participation in extra curricular activities and the best academic performance in the tiny class of humanities students. During the school assembly, the list was being read out. My class was the last in queue and I sat there, smug in the assumption that mine would be the last name called out. When the list ended abruptly with no prefects from my class, it took me five minutes to accept that possibility. I still remember that bitter taste in my mouth, the sense of confounded fogginess, the tears and walking like a zombie trying to ignore the look of pity from people around me. 

As mentioned earlier, I am a history graduate. The second instance happened while in my final year, when I decided to attempt entrance examination for MBA. In India, cracking those dastardly exams is not a joke. Considering there was not even a bare minimum presence of mathematics during my graduation, preparation was no cake walk but I did enough by adhering to my dad’s favourite mode of mock tests and started getting decent scores in the coaching institute’s country-wide tests. Once I gave the most prestigious CAT exam for admission into the hallowed IIMs, I realised that as feared I had faltered in the mathematics section. In that year, I might have been one of the rare few people with a 99 %ile total score (within the top 1% candidates) thanks to high 99% scores in the other two sections, who did not get invited to the revered business schools in India IIM. I know for a fact that sometimes I still wonder what if?

As a marketeer (my previous avatar), the hallowed job is that of being a brand manager. However, most good consumer companies required you to have a sales experience which I had happily mentally blocked in my head. While having a marketing job at a retail firm, I got an opportunity to interview for an Assistant Brand Manager role for hand bags at a well-established luggage company. I interviewed with two people and thought I had done fairly well at both instances. However, quite some time later I was told that my experience was not good enough. For a long time, I could not look at those bags or it’s communication. Looking at me, my husband would often jokingly ask if he should just burn those bags!

Why is failure important?

If it hurts so much, do we really need failure in our lives? Can we not just be an ostrich or cocoon ourselves against the gut wrenching pain and that nagging feeling?

Well, you can if you are also okay with the trade-off of never trying anything new, growing as a person or succeeding in life. Failure, really is the other side of the coin called success. Three of the most important reasons why failure has a role in our lives can be summed up here:

1. Failure is a proof of action

One of my favourite Hindi phrases is “khyali pulao pakana” meaning just imagining things. So many of us fall in that category for a lot of things, be it starting a new business or writing a book or even following a passion. We like to talk about it and even think about it but often fall short of taking action. While success is a fancy, glamorous way to show that you took action, it often comes at the back of ugly, ignored stepping stones of failure, which is as important (if not more) a proof of having taken action. In some ways, failure comes only after the courage to take action.

2. Failure makes us mentally stronger

Success and failure are like siblings. The same action with a slight tweak can create either of them but they are as different as chalk and cheese. While success can often lead to pride and arrogance, failure not only helps you to persevere, it sure helps keep things real. In some ways, boosts of failure are like mental immunization shots, making you stronger and shielding you against unnecessary airs.

3. Failure leads to innovation

For almost anything there are multiple ways of achieving it. If you succeed in the first instance, chances are you are not going to try any other way. Only when you fail, will you try to think beyond the beaten path. In this respect, I loved the idea of Fail Fest, a conference dedicated to celebrate failures, although sadly there was no event mentioned on the website for 2019. However, their website does a phenomenal job of explaining why failure is important on the path to innovation:

Fail Fest was founded based on the idea that innovation and success are possible because of our failures. When we fail, if we have the courage and strength to dust ourselves off and give it another go, we open the door to possibilities.

-Fail Fest Official Website

How to cope with failure?

So, now that we have established that failure is a necessary evil, is there something you can do to make it hurt lesser? Is there a medicine to make the wound less deep? From my experience, below are five ideas that you could try:

1. Be glad that you tried

Fear of failing often keeps us from trying things that can really take us off to exciting and fulfilling paths. In the attempt, even if you fail, remember that action is more important than the result. In this context, I now have a permanent embossing in my head of a quotation on a friend’s whatsapp profile picture. It simply said – Better an oops than a what-if. Ironically enough, the friend is an entrepreneur. Maybe it serves as his own daily reminder 🙂

2. Take a bird’s eye view

 When you look at a failure, think of it in rational terms. How important is it going to be in hindsight? Will it really make a difference to your life in the long run? This was the pep talk from my family that helped me when I was not made a school Prefect. Especially from my sister who had faced the exact same situation seven years back (Now, come to think of it, it was probably a conspiracy against my family!). Similarly, a business school continues to have value on your resume, but it is still about the work that you do on your job, the opportunities that come your way and what you do of them that might matter more than simply those two years.

3. Consider whether the failure is final

My sister and brother-in-law are both scientists. When they were doing their PhD. and Post Doctorate, their passion and commitment to the field often surprised me. Their jobs gave me the most vivid idea of success and failure and not treating it as final. I often heard them talk about having done an experiment for months, seeing them result in failure and then trying them all over again. In any failure, understand what are your options and whether trying some again or persevering at it makes sense for you. If need be, go ahead and do a listing of pros and cons. Think with a cool mind and take a call to never look back again. For instance, a lot of people told me to skip a year and attempt B-school entrance exams again to ensure admission into IIMs. I, on the other hand, was quite sure of not staying at home with nothing to do and had Plans B and C ready as entrance exams for Journalism and Museology. Although, admission into a different business school meant I did not end up needing to use either of those plans.

4. Think of it as a challenge

When I fail, I swing between different spheres of emotions with vengeance often topping the list. So, when I was not made the prefect, I often told myself and vocally to the people around me that I will make it big someday and talk about how stupid my school was. When I did not get through to the hallowed corridors of IIMs, I remember telling my father that someday I will be a boss to IIM graduates and I will make sure this failure does not come in my way. Yes, I am sure I am coming across as aggressive and vengeful but I found it calming 🙂

5. Go philosophical

This is another route that I have often used. My mother’s favourite pep talk methodology,  this one works best in hindsight. In some ways, it is quite an Indian way of looking at things. What my mother has always told me is that whatever happens, happens for good and as per God’s plan for you. So, if something has not happened the way you hoped, then it’s because there is something better in store for you in future. In hindsight, from my campus I got a marketing job at a retail firm which has so far been my favourite place to work at, where I also met my husband. This would never have happened had I performed better at my B-school entrance examinations. Neither would I have come into banking or stumbled into the world of Personal Finance had I gotten a foot into managing a hand bag brand. Try this line of thinking the next time things don’t go the way you want them to.

Failure sucks and it hurts real bad. It is scary and we would rather have life go the way we want it to. But, failure is for real. The quicker we accept it and embrace it, the more its presence can go about enriching our lives.

Have you experienced failure? How do you cope with it? Let me know the comments below.

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