When I was in my early 20s, a few weeks into a job I’d moved especially to London for, I was taken into a small, airless office by my line manager and fired. I wasn’t allowed to go back to my desk. Instead, I went into a public toilet on Carnaby Street and cried for an hour, then hung my head low on the Tube home to try and hide my bloodshot, puffy eyes.
It was a bad day. A bad week. But I don’t think about it much now. At least not until recently, when it's been on my mind again, in the context of failure — and the conversation about how it may or may not propel us on to greater things.
Failure, you might have noticed, is fashionable at the moment. Books, podcasts and TED Talks champion the hidden positives of messing up, telling us that far from being a bad thing, failure is the key to success we’ve all been overlooking. Fail better. Fail faster. Fail harder. Fail mindfully.
Even celebrities are clamouring to show their chinks, with Gwyneth Paltrow stating: "All of my greatest achievements have come out of failure." Failure, once not an option, is now an aspiration.
Through this lens, I’d see being fired in my 20s as a good thing. After all, a fortnight later I had a new job with better pay and considerably nicer workmates. Except I had no option but to find a new job as soon as I could because I’d just signed a one-year contract on a flat. Did getting fired make me stronger? Or did it, in fact, have a lasting impact on my confidence and regularly make me feel unsure about myself and my work? I could find ways to package my experience as something I bounced back from triumphantly, but I’m not sure it's as simple as that.
Back in 2008, J.K. Rowling gave a commencement speech at Harvard University, in which she urged graduates not to be scared of failure. "It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default," she said. Her words struck a chord, spreading beyond Harvard's neatly clipped lawns to be shared all over the internet and eventually, in 2015, turned into a book: Very Good Lives: The Fringe Benefits of Failure.
It made sense. In an age where social media pushes us to always present the best versions of ourselves, having someone not just give permission to fail, but tell us that it is inevitable, felt like a tonic. And as more people started talking about failure, the intentions mostly felt good.
Encouraging us to get more comfortable with failure is, I think, a positive thing. It's a pushback against perfectionism, that ruinous rot spreading through every aspect of our lives. The fear of failure is a defining characteristic of perfectionism. Normalising setbacks and encouraging us to have a little more self-compassion when we screw up can only be a good thing.
But somewhere along the way, the acceptance of failure has mutated into a celebration of it — and a theory that it acts as a springboard to success. Perhaps the blame lies with Silicon Valley (for a change). There, failure has been co-opted into a mantra: Fail fast, fail often. At X, the secretive lab where Google test drives radical new ideas, employees are actively encouraged to mess up.
This glorification of failure has had a ripple effect. At a global movement called Fuckup Nights, entrepreneurs get on stage to share stories of failed startups and doomed ideas. Failure parties have become a thing. Yeah! Let’s drink to the time I screwed everything up! (Now that I’m rich and successful enough to afford the champagne to do it.)
That’s the snag, really. It's only possible to frame failure as a positive once it's in the rearview mirror. And to have the platform to publicly share your failures usually means having gone on to achieve substantial success. Then, failure acts like an Instagram filter, making success look even more pleasing.
While there is some comfort in knowing that everyone encounters bumps along the way, I’m not sure how helpful the failure fetish really is. How is the confession of a magazine editor fired from her job who — after a two-week luxury retreat and a phone call to an equally high-powered contact — pivoted to another career, meant to empower most people? Where are the lessons in hearing a hugely successful broadcaster talk about the upset of getting into the "wrong" (i.e. not their first choice) Oxbridge college? Perhaps we’re meant to feel solace in learning that no one gets everything they want. Most of us are already acutely aware of that.
It’s not just that some of the stories are hard to relate to. It’s that people are creating a correlation between failure and success — forcibly joining dots between past setbacks and current triumphs, as if one thing leads to the other. Failure, rather than being just a shitty and inevitable part of life, has been rebranded as a springboard to success. It’s something to conquer and leverage into a positive, which, if you’re struggling to find the silver lining in your setbacks, can make you feel even more of a failure. This idea that failing is a sign you’re living life to the fullest also feels flawed. Not everyone has the financial or mental resources to afford risking failure.
The whole concept of what it even means to fail has got muddled, too. In relation to careers and business, it at least makes some sense to talk about learning from mistakes and doing better next time — even when that ignores the factors beyond our control that help or hinder us. Widening out the conversation to include things like friendships, family, relationships, health, feels more dubious. In those areas of our lives, how do you even define failure and success? Aren’t we all just making our way through the mess, doing better at some things than others? Failure is complex and confusing but as it’s become the latest buzzword, it's been smoothed out and sold back to us in a way that doesn’t always allow for nuance.
Sure, let’s talk more about life’s cock-ups, get comfortable with our flaws and learn to be kinder to ourselves when things don’t go to plan. But let's also recognise that sometimes failure is just plain failure. There’s no silver lining, no secret to a more successful life hidden inside. It’s not something you have to learn to be good at — you’ve just got to come out the other side.