- “It took me years to be the woman my mother raised. It took me 4 years, 7 months and 3 days to do it, without her. After I lost myself in the wilderness of my grief, I found my own way out of the woods.” – Cheryl Strayed
Another tormented and wayward character is Cheryl Strayed in the film “Wild”. While the film is infused with life-affirming metaphor, what I appreciated was the pragmatic portrayal of the failure embracing expeditions where you jettison all the baggage (metaphorical and real) of daily life. Pilgrimages, walkabouts, retreats, vision quests, samskara have all been a common technique in sacred and traditional practices for finding change, meaning and rebirth in one’s life. Even Christianity’s savior had to endure 40 days in the desert to find his true faith.
Watching the film, I realized that such odysseys were sort of manufactured ways to “hit rock bottom” in a structured and firewalled (ie. insulated from the rest of your life) manner. A long established adage is that addicts won’t seek true help until they “hit rock bottom”. Not until they have lost everything – family, friends, employment – do they find the realization of the turnaround they require.
The problem is that embracing failure to this extent takes the person to a very dark and place from which it is often very hard to emerge. Furthermore, it typically sucks in loved ones – those friends, family and co-workers – who suffer pain in the victim’s descent both in through their own empathy toward the suffered and the sufferer’s own destructive behaviour. But taking yourself on a thousand mile hike with only the provisions on your back sort of mimics the hardship, and stripped down to the basics brutality of existence of “hitting rock bottom” only without the casualties of innocent bystanders and without permanently ridding yourself of your worldly trappings.
As it happens, Strayed is played by someone who herself is no stranger to failure, Reese Witherspoon. Her profile in Vogue, “Reese Witherspoon has some important career advice on failure and rejection”, focused on this topic.
- · “What I didn’t know then was: rejection teaches you perseverance and how to get tough. And you also learn… not every path is right for you.”
- “The best drama comes from getting it wrong – but in an interesting and unexpected way.” – Gaby Hisliff
Another Netflix binge on failure is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag” which turns the happy hijinks of situational comedy up to “11” with convention breaking exploration of hang-ups, disfunction and break-downs. The situations are more than cutesy mishaps of daily life, but life-questioning crossroads at every turn – death, life’s calling, intimacy. And somehow it still comes out funny.
Gaby Hinsliff’s Guardian review, “Fleabag has gloriously affirmed every woman’s right to screw up in style”, captures its embrace of failure:
- “Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s brilliant comedy reminds a generation of anxious young women that low-flying can be enormous fun…And that’s perhaps the difference between the American cult of embracing failure – the idea that every successful entrepreneur has a string of bankrupt startups behind them, that success means taking risks and therefore inevitably a few crashes along the way – and this quintessentially English acceptance of disappointment as part and parcel of life.”
The show grew out of Waller-Bridge’s eponymous play which ran to rave reviews on the London stage. As it happens, Fleabag has much in common with another London theatre production, “Skin A Cat”, by our daughter, Isley Lynn, especially as The Stage review described it as “the smartest, sharpest piece about female sexual identity since Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag.” It too took on the theme of embracing failure with plenty of taboos broken with humorous effect. The play’s core theme was that it is okay to *NOT* do something. So many stories have the moral that it is okay to do something – be yourself, follow your dream, pursue your passion. But Isley flips that on its head to focus on saying “no” to what you don’t want to do (which sometimes can be even harder). In fact, one of the messages of “The Mistaken Champion” was less about what he wanted to do with his life and more about what he did not want to do. In essence, to embrace failing to conform to the norms of society’s or anyone’s expectations.
- · “I think we get it wrong a lot. Especially in this country. It’s all about winning. Winning, winning, winning. Some of the people who are called ‘winners’ are, in my mind, some of the great losers of all time. People who are called losers are to me some of the great winners of all time.” – Ron Shelton
Happy Birthday Netflix. To celebrate, how about a night of Netflix and fail? Their series “Losers” is a collection of short documentaries about sports people who have failed in a big way. But that lost brought about life changing positive for them.
The first episode, “The Miscast Champion”, features former Heavyweight World Champion Michael Bentt and a life-threatening KO which knocked him straight out of the sport he had devoted his life to. And straight into a new life that he describes, “Being knocked out by Herbie Hide, was the best thing that ever happened to me.” He goes onto the describe the transformation in his life which shifted from athleticism to artistry and allowed him to find his true self.
The piece features commentary from a number of friends and associates who share thoughtful reflections on Bentt’s embrace of failure. Film writer/director Ron Shelton (Bull Durham, Tin Cup) who worked with Michael on a number of projects remarked about the risk taking in boxing where every upside requires a direct exposure to downside: “If I want to hit you, I take a risk of being hit. So you don’t get anywhere without risking going somewhere.”
“Pretty hurts, we shine the light on whatever’s worst (pretty hurts)
Perfection is a disease of a nation, pretty hurts, pretty hurts”
The second time I’ve posted about imperfection. The first post also feature an inspired video by Beyoncé on toxicity of perfectionism, and the music video to her song “Pretty Hurts” (above) shares a lot with it.
I came back to Beyonce’s treatment of the topic after reading Seth Godin’s “Never smooth enough–a modern addiction”:
- “It’s imperfectible. For every person who wants you to have bigger portions, there is someone who says the portions are too big. For every person who says your writing is too personal, there’s someone who wants it to be more personal…Seeking a perfect sphere might be a hobby, but if it’s not giving you joy, it’s a lousy way to live. It’s an addiction, not a useful tool. People have been talking about you behind your back ever since fifth grade. Now, of course, you can eavesdrop whenever you choose. Don’t. Turn it off. Walk away. Accept the lack of perfect.”
Buzzfeed’s Faithy6731 observes the same personal hazards to perfectionism in J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and John Knowles’ “A Separate Peace”
- “Society always tells us that we must be perfect or that we must fit into this mold to be important, but the characters in these books taught me that being imperfect and making mistakes is so much more important and by continuously trying to fit into this perfect version of ourselves, we will only hurt ourselves.”
- “This new wave of embracing failure, while a welcome antidote to the Instagram age.” – Ali Panthony
It’s not just process of photography, but the subjects themselves that could use some exposure to failure. The Insta-age of prepped, plucked, primped, plastic surgeried, posed and photoshopped seems to be on a crusade of eradicating all failure from popular depiction of “daily” life.
Ali Panthony’s article “All over the gaffes: why failing isn’t so bad anymore” offers hope asserting:
- “We are living in the age of all-encompassing perfectionism. On social media, we’re bombarded with carefully curated, Facetuned portrayals of all aspects of people’s lives. Offline, post-work drinks turn into daily updates of peers’ proposals, pregnancies and promotions. New definitive user manuals are launched every day with advice on how best to live our lives, from being the perfect parent to fool-proofing your career path. In this anti-error era, you’d be forgiven for assuming that failure is not an option. But bubbling away beneath the filtered feeds, a quiet anti-perfectionism revolution is underway, and its manifesto is all about embracing your mistakes. Social media selfies are becoming less performative and among savvy Instagrammers, to filter your appearance is seen as cringey rather than cool. There’s a rise in frank accounts such as @averageparentproblems with 445k followers, hashtags encouraging authenticity (like #womenirl: 108,000+ posts of cellulite, breast pumps and burnt toast). It’s on our screens, too. In her brilliant Channel 4 triptych, All Woman, Kathy Burke examines what it is to be a woman today, and explores the expectations women are unfairly beholden to.”
Paul Dolan, professor of behavioural science at LSE and author of “Happy Ever After: Escaping the Myth of the Perfect Life” adds:
- “People like us more when we’re our real, flawed, crap selves — we’d all hate someone who was genuinely perfect, right? So being open, honest and sharing that crapness creates solidarity through shared experience. It’s about getting away from the images we create on social media, and getting back to the real world.”
Victoria Haltom of Victoria Caroline Photography (photo from portfolio above) shares the poignant specific example in the Buzzfeed piece “After Seeing His Wife In Sexy Photoshopped Photos, A Husband Said He Missed Her ‘Flaws’” of a glossy photoshoot which had the opposite of the intended effect. But a powerful effect of appreciating the photogenic ‘failures’ which tell the story of a life well lived:
- “These pictures…while they are beautiful and you are clearly a very talented photographer…they are not my wife. You made every one of her ‘flaws’ disappear…and while I’m sure this is exactly what she asked you to do, it took away everything that makes up our life. When you took away her stretch marks, you took away the documentation of my children. When you took away her wrinkles, you took away over two decades of our laughter, and our worries. When you took away her cellulite, you took away her love of baking and all the goodies we have eaten over the years. I am not telling you all of this to make you feel horrible, you’re just doing your job and I get that. I am actually writing you to thank you. Seeing these images made me realize that I honestly do not tell my wife enough how much I LOVE her and adore her just as she is.”
- “Life is like photography. You need the negatives to develop.” ― Ziad K. Abdelnour
World Photography Day today. A picture says thousand words. A photography has plenty to say about embracing failure.
An extreme example of this striving for aesthetic ethos is the Lomography Society…
- “The organization specializes in cheap plastic cameras produced in Russia and China — toys, really, many of which have light leaks and other flaws. Yet they’re selling at high markups in striking numbers, embraced by those hipsters who are warming to analog film. They’re fun to use, and their irregular performance adds a bit of chance to the results — which, for a certain kind of person, one who’s deliberately rejecting the clean digital image, is almost the point of shooting film.”
Our daughter has long been an avid devotee of Polaroid snaps. Photographically inferior in every way to a normal photograph – fidelity, saturation, durability, reproducibility, expense. But all of these small failures produce a gritty, raw feel to the moment they are capturing.
As it happens, the Polaroid organization didn’t quite embrace failure as much as its devotees did which provides a cautionary tale “What Kodak could still learn from Polaroid”…
- “In the 1960s and ’70s, Polaroid was one of the most inventive technology companies on Earth. By the 1990s, it had changed from idea factory to consumer-products manufacturer, and one that was dependent on a single product line whose technology was aging ungracefully. Polaroid declared bankruptcy in 2001 and again in 2008; it stopped film production in 2009. A look at the deep swan dive taken by Polaroid’s analog film business, and at the tiny companies that have bobbed along picking up bits of its business after the collapse, provides useful guidance to whoever buys Kodak’s film division — and some cautionary tales, as well.”
May embracing failure be a snap for you today. Here’s some inspirations for you from Michael Raso’s collection of Polaroid “failures” titled “Sometimes, Failure can be Beautiful”.
My day job is based at the WEISS Center (Wellcome / EPSRC Centre for Interventional and Surgical Sciences) at University College London. I was naturally intrigued to attend UCL’s own embrace of failure programme called “Adapt to Thrive”:
UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering (IHE) have partnered with the Academic Careers Office to bring you another ADAPT to Thrive event – part of an event series for ECRs where their peers and senior researchers share their experiences on how they failed and lived to tell the story. Taking risks and failing is an integral part of building a research career. By sharing the experiences of researchers at different career stages the ADAPT event series provides early career researchers with support by showcasing how failure and success walk hand in hand.
ADAPT to Thrive will:
- Normalise speaking out about failure and reducing stigma.
- Help build a more resilient academic community by facilitating conversations and allowing early and mid-career researchers to find support networks.
- Shift the perception of risk and encourage early and mid-career researchers to take new approaches to their careers and pursue unconventional ideas.
The session I attended featured speakers from the UCL faculty (Matt and Clare I have worked with):
- Dr Matt Clarkson, Centre for Medical Image Computing (CMIC) and Wellcome/EPSRC Centre for Interventional and Surgical Sciences (WEISS)
- Prof Clare Elwell, UCL Department of Medical Physics and Biomedical Engineering
- Prof Anna David, UCL Institute of Women’s Health and UCLH
Great to see in higher education not just the practice but also the pedagogy of embracing failure.