This is an absolute belter of a post from Penny. And one that is hard to read, and cuts to the truth, and calls out anyone with a shred of the “compulsive overachieving” gene. Failing is hard. It’s not something we are taught to relish, or encouraged to do, not ever. We shy away from taking risks because of our fear of failing. And we end up as lesser versions of the people we could be as a result.
Penny took risks. She failed. Here’s her story:
I still remember the first time I failed. Standing outside my department head’s office in my first year of university clutching my first English essay paper of the year with its big fat F. Puffy red eyes and a snotty nose, feeling like I was staring into the abyss, that some horrible injustice must have come to pass. How had this happened? How could I, me, the clever person, write something that I really tried hard at and still fail? Turns out writing an academic essay was a million miles away from my college trick of slinging together any old thing and getting an A. “Well done for writing in proper sentences and having an independent thought!” Oh that first year was a wake-up call.
I floundered at university, actually. Didn’t really make friends and languished in the middle regions of all my academic classes. I had never failed before, never even really been average. I hated it. My identity was tied up with As and success and coasting through life. If you took that away what did I have? I waved my brains like a flag to hide my weak personality behind.
Years later, flung into the world of work, I managed to get a good (rare) steady job in a creative industry and my life was back on easy street. Then five years down the line, everyone in my department got made redundant. Blinded by a fat pay-out and the belief that if I worked hard enough at anything I would succeed, I changed career. I set up as self-employed. I was going to prove everyone wrong, because all you really need is determination, right?
Nothing hurts more than investing everything you have, financially and emotionally, in something and having it flop. I chose to do fitness – something I loved that didn’t come naturally to me and was hard to market in a recession. It drained me. Three years on I realised I needed to cut my losses before I lost my home. Seemed I could work hard enough to make myself good at something, but that wasn’t enough to make me great.
My business had failed, I had failed. This was bigger than an English essay. This was three years of my life and thousands of pounds I would never get back. Three years I could have spent on the career ladder to something I was good at.
At first I took it personally. I hated that I wasn’t the best instructor, that I wasn’t the fittest, that people didn’t come to me to burn fat and work hard. Then I looked at why they did come to me, and I started to see something quite incredible. People at my gym came to me for emotional support with their weight problems, my personal training clients came to me to talk about their day. My aerobics and Pilates students came to me to have fun, to shoot the shit, to be different, to be themselves. These aren’t things people normally come to fitness classes for. I realised they were coming to my classes because I’d made them laid back and silly and not like a fitness class at all. And then I started to see how failing is great.
Failing isn’t just life telling you off. It’s the world trying to teach you about yourself. That English essay told me I needed to step up my game. And those three years trying to make ends meet taught me more about the person I am than I ever knew. That I love working with people, helping people, picking them up and dusting them off and sending them on their way. Would I have learned that spending another five years cooped up in a script office by myself? Probably not.
And now I’ve learned that what I do love is writing, because I carried it on through that whole difficult time, like a compulsion. And that’s why I’m sitting here writing to you on maternity leave from my new(ish) copywriting job. Writing to you when the baby is asleep and I should probably be sleeping too. Because I can’t help it. These words swim round in my head all day and I need to get them out. And now I’ve had three years of meeting people and talking to them and learning about life to inspire me.
This is why we can all learn to love failing. It’s not the end of the world, even though it really, really feels like it at the time. It’s just another step in your adventure. And unless we learn to try and fail, over and over again, we risk never fulfilling our true potential.
So hold on tight and jump…