When I grow up I want to be a happy failure.
I asked if there is a nice word for failure on Facebook and people came up with fantastic suggestions: experiment, set back, opportunity to learn, experience (and more), courage, no such thing as failure, a fork in the road (and not a ‘fork’ up), first attempt, practise, doer (only doers fail), whoopsy daisy, Frank Spencer! (for the lovers of UK comedy) and successfully challenged. I love them all.
After reading this wonderful list I’m already feeling better about my, ahem, experiment, set back, op…
I had this romantic idea to dye all our baby wraps with bold natural dyes and donate them to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) that took such good care of Mr 4YO when he was born. Why bother you may well ask, but there are times when the details matter. Sometimes the details get us through.
You see, all those humidicribs, ventilators, tubes and wires make the soft things like wraps and bunny rugs seem all the more important. And colour is a big deal too, maybe, because it distracts the eye from the horror.
I know the nurses would love telling the mums the story behind the brightly coloured wraps. When my boy was in hospital, I loved hearing about the ladies who knitted the baby beanies. It nourished my soul knowing that people cared enough to do that. People cared about my baby. People cared.
It just didn’t work according to plan. I’ve had my fair share of crafty flops. There was the time I tried to make a scarf out of hubby’s fave t-shirt and the time I tried to hand cut some glasses for a Father’s Day gift and nearly sliced my wrist open instead. Whoopsy daisy. Still, I persist.
Sometimes things come together easily, like the tea dyeing. Tickety-boo this dyeing business is easy-peasy, I thought. So, I followed my usual habit of thinking that research and hard work would get me the result I wanted.
The funny thing is that I’m kind of happy the wraps didn’t work at my first attempt. Sounds weird doesn’t it? I went to a lot of effort steeping, boiling, straining, wringing and rinsing. I could cover it up, photoshop it or whatever, but I’m really happy to embrace my inner Frank Spencer and show off my failings, ahem, opportunities to learn.
Despite all the effort, the colours range from faint to non-existent. In all cases, they turned out different to what I expected. It might seem unfair, considering I have suffered the consequences of being a messy eater all my life and one drip of beetroot has ruined a whole shirt, yet here I am trying to stain fabric on purpose and the colours just won’t stick.
I could’ve bought a packet of dye and got a refund if it didn’t come out with the colour I wanted. It would’ve been a much safer bet, but I’ve spent so much of my life trying to shelter myself from disappointment and suffered deeply for it. I’ve lied and cheated, because the end justified the means or so I thought. It’s like I was living my life by a catalogue sales pitch, ‘Get the result you want or your money back!’
The uncomfortable realisation I had when my baby was in hospital was that there are no guarantees no matter what you do. Death is a turn of the dial or a heart beat away. The tiniest change and the outcome is completely different, but it doesn’t mean it’s not worth putting the effort in the first place, taking the risk to be there doing it right up until the end.
A NICU is just life magnified and somewhere in amongst those microscopic syringes, I realised I don’t want to live by this notion that success and failure are attached to self-worth anymore. Being there and doing it is what matters.
The problem is that it’s a very hard habit to kick. Our biology likes us to think in terms of success or failure. The person who slays the wilderbeast is the hero, not the person who tried a fancy new spear and missed by the nearest margin. Ridiculous isn’t it? They both put in the same effort and are worthy of praise.
We don’t even need others to tell us we’re failures or put us down. We often save them the effort and beat ourselves up, tell ourselves we’re useless and there’s no point in trying. What’s the point of it all – is the end of that little road.
Why do we think like that? I watch my baby grunting and pulling himself up to stand. Is he saying to himself, ‘If I could just stand up, then I’d be a better person?’ Perhaps, but he is frequently met with a fall and it doesn’t seem to disturb his sense of self. He just keeps on wobbling his way up.
Is it our biology that makes us believe our sense of self is linked to success or failure? Maybe it motivates us to keep practicing? But it’s a strange game and I’m not sure it gives us the best outcome in the long run. Attaching self-worth to outcomes rather than doing is dangerous.
There’s many a celebrity and athlete that has fallen prey to the belief that their success and associated glory is who they are and tragically plummeted when the accolades fall away. Those who love what they do and are able to focus more on the love of what they do seem to find it easier to walk the tightrope of fame.
The idea of finding satisfaction in the work or the doing touches so many parts of our lives. I often wonder if my firstborn had died in the NICU would I have resented or regretted all the effort I put in? I doubt it. After speaking to the mothers who have lost children, they value and treasure the time and effort. They wish they could’ve had and done more.
Would you consider one of the deaths of these children and babies a failure? No, of course not, it’s an outrageous and ridiculous thought. Those babies and children fought with all their might, but life and death get in the way sometimes.
What we can do is live in awe of the valiance and resilience of these little people, their families and humanity to rally against horrible circumstances. Every person who has rallied against something monstrous is a hero, irrespective of the result.
I read an interesting study a couple of years ago, I wish I could remember where to find it. The paper looked at the psychological outcomes of people who endured traumatic events. Apparently, those who tried to do something, such as looking after others, plotting escape and the like fared better than those who weren’t able to. It didn’t matter if their attempts helped or not. Somehow the activity and the effort during the crisis made the mental recovery better. This suggests that it is more damaging for us not to ‘do’.
Doing is good for our brains no matter how big or small the undertaking, but focusing on the outcome can stifle doing. Obsessing over results can lead to other problems, like quick fixes, cheating, lies and an inability to rest when time out is needed. Who’s failing now?
Failure, pfff… That’s a word for losers. Maybe there is no such thing as failure. It’s just life.
I want to try and live a better life and have the courage to accept that crap happens. If I’ve tried my best then I might even be able to smile and acknowledge that I’ve been successfully challenged.
It’s oddly liberating knowing that there are no guarantees. For some reason it takes a lot of the fear of trying away, because who knows what might happen down that little fork in the road?
Maybe I could’ve tried harder at this natural dyeing business, but I discovered that it’s like life, very fickle. It’s not about me it just didn’t work this time. One thing I did realise during the whole exercise is that for all those years I was trying to protect myself from failure by not trying things was actually hurting me and I’m big enough and ugly enough to cope after all. Perhaps, by accepting the smaller set backs the bigger ones will be a bit easier to take. Practice makes perfect.
This is why I feel like celebrating in the brief moments when I’m able to detach from the outcome and just enjoy the doing. If only I could think like this all the time, because I suspect this might be one of the pillars of resilience.
Wouldn’t it be grand if we didn’t brand ourselves as failures, because we tried. It’d make it a lot easier to shrug off other people’s criticisms.
Life sure does come with good bits, shit bits and lots of lovely in between bits.
How do you cope with the ups and downs?
Linking with the amazing Grace x