Long read ahoy, all about failure. For the takeaways feel free to skip to the end.
This summer I left employment – and education – after over two decades, to focus on writing full time. It’s a curious way to celebrate it: writing about being a failure. But it’s been such a major theme of the past year that it feels like the best way to do so.
Over the last year I’ve failed repeatedly. My favourite author and teacher, Pema Chödrön, wrote a book called Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better which I’ve been reading a lot of late. I’m not sure that I’m failing better yet, but I’m certainly becoming very well acquainted with failure and what it has to offer us. If that sounds like a strange idea – surely failure is something to be avoided – then keep reading.
My great mate and co-author Justin Hancock says that we can generally handle it if one of three areas of our lives – work, home and relationships – is shaky, so long as the other two hold relatively steady. If two of those aren’t good then things start to feel pretty precarious. And when all three go at once…
That’s what happened for me last Summer. I was starting the process of leaving academia so work was shaky, I was moving city and it took a good while to figure out where I’d be living, plus things were rocky in my relationships. This was all against the backdrop of it finally really hitting me what it means to be a trans person at this cultural moment of moral panic; a survivor during #metoo and all the conversations that have followed, and recognising how intertwined those things are with my life and my work.
Still, I landed, I found a sense of relative safety, and I managed to keep going, albeit at a much slower pace and with a lot more emphasis on self-care than before.
But now I actually have left my employed job after a whole life spent studying or working in education. Having thought I had a handle on it, I’ve fallen back into my old relationship patterns more than once in the last year (like a hamster on a freaking wheel!) and I’ve had to painfully confront the impact that’s had on myself and others, with a whole lot of regret and loss in the process. And, just when things were at their worst, I found out that I couldn’t stay living in the place that had become home for me.
I’ve been through these kinds of failures before. I’ve lost several jobs, homes, relationships, friendship groups, and communities along the way, often under painful circumstances that have left me feeling shame at having let others – and myself – down. The shift this time – I hope – isn’t that I’m not failing, it’s that I’m trying to approach failure in a radically different way.
Authors like Pema, and Brené Brown, who write about failure point out that failure is inevitable in life. This is particularly the case if you are ‘in the arena’ – as Brene calls it. Doing what feels valuable in work, love, and community is inevitably also going to be vulnerable. And we’re inevitably going to fuck it up at times.
Because of the stigma around failure, most of us endeavour to avoid it at all costs. If it happens we respond by blaming ourselves and hiding away so we never risk failing again, or by blaming everybody else and not taking any responsibility for what we’ve done because it’s too hard to face our shortcomings and limitations – and their impact. When I failed in the past I often burned my bridges pretty fast, moved on, and worked even harder to avoid such failure in the future, without looking too carefully at what’d just happened.
What I’m doing this time is different. I’m trying to embrace the fact that these failures have happened – and that they certainly won’t be the last ones I experience (well so long as I stay alive of course). Instead of adding them to a long list of past experiences that have felt similar – and using them as proof of the story that something about me is wrong and unacceptable, or that there’s something wrong with the work, people or communities I’ve surrounded myself with – I’m trying to look at them clearly, with honesty and kindness.
When I do that I realise that there’s much to be learnt here – probably far more than we learn from experiences of ‘success’. Also, the closer I look, the more the success/failure binary is called into question. I see that these two elements are closely woven together – inseparable in fact. As Brené points out: learning, creativity and innovation aren’t possible without failure. But I think it’s more than that: failing at work is a kind of work (perhaps this kind of work that I’m doing right now!) Also, failing at love and home have both brought me as much love and home as they have lost me.
Let’s delve deeper into these three areas so you can see what I mean…
I’m a failed academic. Clearly. I’m 45 and I haven’t made professor: the pinnacle of the academic ladder. This is because – despite publishing twenty books and over a hundred articles – I have never been REF-able: The Research Excellence Framework which is the way academic success is measured in the UK.
I’m not excellent. Far from it. I haven’t brought in research funding because I didn’t want to spend my time on funding bids or administrating big research projects. Also, every time I thought I’d finally written something that ‘counted’ as the right kind of academic work, I was told that it still wasn’t right: too ‘polemic’, too far out of my discipline (undisciplined), a chapter when only journal articles counted, a theory paper when only research papers counted, a co-authored paper when single author is the gold standard, single author but not in the right kind of journal, in the right kind of journal but not the right kind of research.
I tried to carve out a different path as a public engagement academic, but it’s not enough to do that alone – you do need to bring in the money and publish the papers also. When you point out that it may well not be possible to do all of those things, teach, and practise self-care – and care for the others in your life – that doesn’t tend to go down particularly well.
I could say a lot about which kinds of people academic systems and structures do – and do not – serve; about the kinds of labour, knowledge and bodies that are – and are not – valued there; and about the impact this has: the shame, imposter syndrome, and anxiety that so many academics are plagued by. I probably will say more about these things at some point. And I should also acknowledge the massive privileges I’ve been afforded by being within academia (and being privileged enough to get there in the first place): the money I’ve been able to save, the things I’ve learned, the projects it’s supported, and the ways it’s been (mostly) a safe-enough place to be my particular brand of non-normative weirdo. For now let’s agree that I’m a failed academic, by academic standards.
It’s okay though, I never actually wanted to be an academic. I only did a PhD in the first place because I was too young to do the thing I really wanted to do which was to be a therapist. And I only took an academic job post-PhD to fund my therapy training. I stayed in academia because I got passionate about teaching, and about studying the things I care about as an activist (gender, sexuality, relationships, mental health). But really I always wanted to be a therapist.
Here’s the thing: I’ve failed at that too. I worked as a therapist for over a decade – mostly in voluntary contexts because I had the academic job to pay the bills. Last year I left the voluntary therapy behind with the plan that I’d take on more private clients, so that I could afford to live once I quit the academic job to focus on writing. I didn’t take on any more clients. I realised that not being a therapist felt like a relief. My reservations about therapy in general – and about my particular capacities as a therapist – surfaced, and I realised that I needed to stop. So I did, with no idea about what I was going to do for money if I wasn’t going to do that.
It’s a good thing too because I would not have been able to hold therapy clients through the last year, given the crises I was facing in my own life. But it’s not just that. Being a therapist isn’t for me, I realise. I’m not the kind of therapist I would want to be: the kind that I’ve been lucky enough to experience a few times in my life. I don’t have that skill set: the capacity to contain people, or to work with them relationally in the ways I’d want to. I can do great one-to-one work with people, but in much more of a peer-to-peer mentorship type way. Not therapy.
But this is all okay because the whole point was that I was giving it all up to be a writer, right? So that’s what I’ll be: a writer. D’you want to know how much I wrote – for publication – between last summer and this? Zero. Nothing. Not a word! The stuff I have coming out this year was all written before then. I have written thousands and thousands of words in my journal. I have written the third book in the four-book erotic fiction project I have going on, which may never see the light of day (the prospect of putting something that vulnerable out there and failing remains too scary, but who knows?) I managed the odd blog post, but even those were few and far between.
What did I achieve – workwise – in these months of failure? A lifelong workaholic I finally learned how to underfunction instead of overfunctioning. I learnt to prioritise self-care: always putting The Work before the work. I largely undid my previous patterns of working to soothe or distract myself, or getting through the to-do list before I allow any self-care. I learnt to relate to work consensually: to feel into my body when I get a request, and to only say ‘yes’ to things that feel good immediately and still feel good 48 hours later. It’s been hard and it’s been messy, like all change. I’ve let people down. I’ve felt like the flaky colleague just when I wanted to end on a high note. I’ve taken time off sick when previously I’d have worked on through. I’ve had to go back to people when I’d said ‘yes’ to change it to a ‘no’ when I realised I’d overridden my self-consent.
It’s still a work in progress, but it is The Work: changing the habits of a lifetime of remaining in sometimes toxic and bullying work environments, forcing myself to produce the kinds of things I thought would count rather than what I valued, working through crises, sickness and struggle instead of allowing rest, recovery, recuperation. Writing is coming back now (as evidenced by the sudden explosion of blog posts and tweets about my new graphic guide). What I’ve been through is helping me to keep remembering to engage with writing more kindly, openly, mindfully, and flexibly. I’m pretty convinced that when we write in such ways it’s better quality – and connects more with others – too.
To relate very differently to work – prioritising the work I find most fulfilling and feel most skilled at – requires rethinking home too. How to live in order to be a full-time writer, because sadly writing alone will never provide a liveable income for most of us? Twenty books in and only one of them brings me in more than a few hundred quid a year – and that may only be for a short time.
The main answer is, again, privilege. My whiteness, financially comfortable background, being largely non-disabled within our current society, location in the UK with English as my first language, and more, meant that I had enough privilege to access higher education. Also, remaining in higher education meant that I had the kind of job where it’s possible to be pretty crazy and pretty weird and still keep a paying job (except for that one faily, faily time when I nearly got fired after The Sun called me a bisexual boffin). So – despite a relationship pattern where I’ve given a lot of the money earned through this work to other people in order to secure love (top tip fellow people pleasers: it doesn’t work) – I managed to save up enough to live on for a while, now that I’ve downsized considerably
While I was searching for somewhere cheap to live an opportunity came up to live in the co-op my friend lived in. I’ve loved the idea of communal living since I came across Tales of the City at a formative age. I did have some assumptions and fears about what it might be like in practice, most of which were wholly inaccurate. It seemed like a financially sustainable option outside of the problematic systems of renting and buying property. I also loved the possibilities it opened up around access intimacy, care, and consent.
Living there I learnt lots about how much more possible self-care becomes when we have systems and structures which support it. I also learnt how much more possible caring for each other through physical and mental health struggles is when there are many people around and available, all of whom get it. I saw how conflict – openly addressed and held within family and community – can play out differently. I also learned some hard lessons about group dynamics. I’m sure I’ll be reflecting on this experience for many years to come.
But when the house considered whether to make me a permanent member after eight months they decided not to. Partly this was because I had been going back and forth a lot about what my ongoing living situation would be. But more than that – and this was bloody hard to hear – it was because I felt to them more like extended family than immediate family.
It would’ve been so easy to experience this as rejection, as me failing. The day it happened I was awash with memories of previous experiences that felt like this: when my university housemates threw eggs at my door because they were so sick of me having my depressed partner round at our flat all the time; when I lost most of my group of friends following one of those painful periods of ricocheting break-ups that can happen in queer community.
Partly thanks to the work the house has done in holding people through conflict and crisis – and perhaps also thanks to The Work that I’ve done over the years – this played out very differently. I was able to feel the feels and to express them – quite vividly – to everyone, and to feel heard and seen and understood. And I was able to hear them too. They were right that I felt more like extended family: I felt that too. And while it was terrifying to have this final rug pulled out from under me at this exquisitely vulnerable time, there was a sense of possibility in it too: things that might open up as well as close down.
Interestingly, since that time and in the conversations we’ve continued to have, I’ve actually felt closer to my friends from the house – not further away. There’s been a lot more openness. And I’ve been able to put more time and energy into nurturing other friendships where I have deep connections, including sharing my new home space with them in ways I never did before. I’m able to hold the possibility that, in losing a home and family, I may paradoxically have gained one.
I realise at this point that I’ve been talking about failure in quite a prettied up way: the way it can look in the fuzzy glow of hindsight. You could go away with the impression that it’s this okay thing – not that bad – quite beautiful in fact if looked at from the right perspective. Let’s talk about what failure actually looks like. Let’s talk about what it feels like.
Brené likens it to stepping out into the arena and falling on your face, eating dirt in front of everyone. It is like that. Except imagine that you’re naked. Not noble Cersei Lannister kind of naked but crying, begging, and scrabbling at the door you’ve just been pushed through to get the hell out of there kind of naked. There are tears and snot, there is rage and terror. It’s not a pretty sight. And scrutinising your every move are all your closest friends and family, plus everyone who has ever bullied you or criticised your work, definitely all your exes and your scariest school teachers. And every single one of their faces is filled with disgust. And they are just about to release the terrible monster that you have to fight. And when they do there is every fucking chance that you will crap yourself from fear in front of everyone. That, my friends, is what failure feels like.
That’s how it felt when those eggs hit my door, when I saw that headline in The Sun and had to face my managers afterwards, when I felt rejected from my community and slunk away, when I tried to bring my soft consent-y activism into my workplace and everybody looked at me like I was completely crazy, when the house gave me my notice. And that is precisely how it’s felt every time I’ve tried and failed at love, especially during the period where I’m desperately flinging everything that I have at it, trying to pretend that I’m not doing the same old thing again like the aforementioned hamster.
I’ve already said most of what I need to say about my relationship patterns in the second edition of Rewriting the Rules, and in these blogposts. Sadly that hasn’t stopped me from finding thrilling new ways of acting out the same old patterns: struggling to be honest with myself and others, striving to meet others’ expectations, or assuming they will be on the same page as me. This was a big part of the dynamics that brought three of the relationships – with individuals and groups – that were most important to me to breaking point in the last year.
Understandably, failure cuts deepest for me when I’m failing in this particular arena. Being somebody who has written several self-help style books on relationships really doesn’t help with that. At least I make it very clear in my writing that this stuff is bloody hard for all of us – so-called relationship ‘experts’ included. Perhaps I should insist on being billed as a relationship failure from now on.
However, I’ve noticed that, as with work and home, there is a lot of love to be found in failing at love. These days my go-to response to a life crisis is to book in time with close people each day until I’m steadier – online calls or in-person walks and talks – in addition to ongoing message exchanges. During these conversations it’s been reaffirmed for me that intimacy deepens with vulnerability. I’ve shown my feelings, my insecurities, more openly than ever before and I’ve felt how much closer that’s brought me to my people. Also most people have shared their struggles right back.
I feel more able to be real with my people – instead of monitoring myself and keeping up a facade – and I feel more able to connect with them too. How paradoxical and wonderful that mulling over the potential impossibility of love has resulted in such strong feelings – and actions – of love.
The other thing that I’ve made into a daily practice of late is explicit internal conversations. Anyone familiar with my work knows that I’m big into the idea of plural selves, and I often experience myself as more of a team – or a system – than an individual. So most days start and end with a check-in between the members of this team – written in my journal – with the explicit intention that the parts of me who are struggling will support the parts that aren’t so much on that particular day.
In Rewriting the Rules I suggested that experiencing ourselves as plural could make it easier to love ourself than it is when we imagine that we’re this singular, static individual who can be judged as good or bad. That’s certainly been my experience of late. There’s a lot of love within for the vulnerable parts, the parts who fought so damned hard and still managed to fail, the parts who took the risk and now find themselves exposed in the arena.
Embracing and Learning from Failure
This blog post is already over 3000 words long: another failure. I rarely manage the SEO-pleasing 500 word shorties that experts recommend. WordPress will doubtless give me a bunch of angry red emoticons for this latest opus and for my continued use of the passive voice.
So what are my quick take-aways about failure then, other than what doesn’t kill you makes you stranger?
- Failure is an inevitable part of being human, get used to it, and go gently because our whole culture tells us that it’s not okay, that we’re to blame for it, and that we should punish ourselves for it.
- A sense of failure may be more about you not fitting the particular system or situation you’ve tried to succeed in. Moving into a different system or situation – perhaps one with values more aligned with your own – might be something to explore.
- Feeling you’ve failed at something can give you an opportunity to stop doing that thing. The space that opens up may bring something different that you end up finding more fulfilling and feeling more competent at (like me replacing therapy with writing mentorship).
- Failure shows us where we’re stuck, where we’re hooked, where we’re messy. Learning these things is super helpful because then we can work to shift our patterns (again, gently please).
- Failing in different arenas can actually bring us the very things we thought we were losing from failing. Failing at work can become a big part of our work (emotional, creative, and otherwise – like all the people who make their work out of helping people who are struggling in the same ways that they have). Failing at home or family can bring us other forms of community and kinship. Failing at relationships – and sharing our experiences around this openly – can bring us love and connection.
- If you can stay with the fact that you’ve failed – and the impact of this on you and others – it can make you a lot more humble and compassionate for others caught in the same kinds of situations and dynamics.
- As Brené Brown points out, remaining in the arena even when we know the risks of failure – and what it feels like to fail – is pretty badass. Think Captain Marvel standing up again each time she gets knocked down in the movie.
- As Pema Chödrön suggests, having the rug pulled out from under us completely can be just what we need in order to stop looking for babysitters to look after us, and to start opening up to what life has to teach us.
- As queer theorist like Jack Halberstam and Sara Ahmed point out, what is considered successful in our culture is often determined by those with the most power. The more non-normative we are, the more likely we are to fail according to the normative standards of what counts as success. So failing can be seen as a radical part of resisting these norms. And we can rightly get pretty pissed off at how we’re set up to fail by norms which require us to pass exams, make lots of money, own property, ascend various professional ladders, stay in particular kinds of relationships, look attractive according to western beauty ideals, have kids who also meet these criteria for success, etc. etc. etc.
Okay that wasn’t so quick. Let’s try again. What can you do if you’re struggling with failing and failing again. I’d say the important things are to:
- Practice self-care around it. If it feels overwhelming then first focus on getting yourself back to a safe-enough state to look at it. Refrain from doing anything till you’re in a good-enough place to deal. There’s no rush.
- Stay with the feelings.
- Try to see the failure clearly, honestly – and above all – kindly.
- Consider what it would be like if we could see the faily parts of us as the most precious, tender, and loveable parts of us. Wow right?
- Focus on addressing your part in what happened – it’s up to others whether or not they want to address their’s. Also recognise the wider dynamics, systems, and structures that are in play which mean it’s not all on you. Try not to be drawn into blame and shame, and go easy on yourself when you’re inevitably drawn into blame and shame.
- Question the success/failure binary and who this serves.
- Recognise that habits take time to shift and require repeated failure in order to do so – check out this poem by Portia Nelson to help with this. It’s okay that you fell into that hole again.
- Don’t listen to criticism from people in the cheap seats. They aren’t in the arena, as Brené says. But do welcome generous feedback and support from people who have your back and are up for facing their own failure. This is not something we can do alone.
- Let failure crack you open, soften you up, connect you with others who’re going through similar stuff, and fuel your creativity.
- Try not to be part of cultures which shame people for failing, making it even more difficult for all of us to accept our inevitable failures, to take responsibility for their impact, and to fail better.
I’ll leave the last word to Thor’s mum, Frigga, in Avengers Endgame because I liked this thought on failure: ‘Everyone fails at who they’re supposed to be. The measure of a person, of a hero, is how well they succeed at being who they are.’