Failing hurts

I started writing this on a train to Bath where I’ve the absolute pleasure of spending the night with Rich Watts (my virtual twin) and his family, before heading into Bristol bright and early tomorrow for TEDxBristol. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow which will allow me to spend a whole day focusing on failure, you can check out the schedule here and see what you’re missing. Organised by the phenomenally talented Nat Al Tahhan with a volunteer crew, this event promises to be a highlight in my year.

I don’t think we talk enough about failure, I don’t think we’re honest about it and I don’t think we’re very good at learning from it. Sweeping statements I know, but as someone with a background in research and more recently in sector-led improvement and knowledge transfer, it’s all too tempting to get stuck on evidence, what works and good practice. It’s what audiences claim they want, whether it’s the best way to learn or not.

I try to blog something ahead of a day like tomorrow, it’s sort of a prep/homework task I set myself to ensure I’m thinking about it and have my head in a good space before the day. As enjoyable as it is to just turn up, I like to frame my soup of thoughts somewhat. I’d intended to start musing on failure over the weekend as last Friday I had the pleasure of attending Meaning Conference in Brighton. You can read my musings ahead of #MeaningConf Life after Bobby: In search of meaning which unsurprisingly were about life, love, loss and the search for meaning. There’s a little bit about failure in there actually, probably underlining points 7 and 9…especially the thoughts on vulnerability and self doubt.

So where does this leave me ahead of a day of failure? My first thought was that there’s loads I could write about and share: my thoughts on failure; some of my most epic fails; my fear of failure; reframing failure and questioning whether it’s really fail or whether it’s wrong people/place/time; life and death and where meaning fits; and of course how we talk (or don’t talk) about death and whether we subconsciously view death as some sort of failure. I definitely have a blog post brewing about language and cancer, my Dad often talked of fighting cancer when he was being treated for cholangiocarcinoma, but I was at pains to point out that Dad didn’t ‘lose that fight’, in fact I don’t think it’s a great metaphor because it implies if you survive you win the fight and if you die you fail….and yet I don’t think that Dad failed or lost his fight, in fact I was explicit in his eulogy about that:

Dad didn’t lose his battle, or succumb to cancer; he stoically, bravely and steadfastly lived his death as he lived his life, with courage, dignity and a concern for others.

Anyway, as you probably can tell, there’s loads I could blether on about with regards to failure. I thought I’d have a think at the weekend and come up with something. Instead in the midst of Meaning Conference on Friday I saw an email notification whizz across the top right of my screen. This email was from Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. It would contain good news (please come for an interview) or bad news (sorry you failed at the first hurdle). WCMT gives travelling fellowship grants for people to travel overseas to ‘bring knowledge and best practice for the benefit of others in their UK professions and communities’ (see best practice again, no-one wants failure, but I digress). Last year I didn’t apply because I had a full time job and a seriously ill father, but this year (having quit my job a year ago, at the same time as it happens that Dad died) I decided to give it a go and apply for funds.


Eurghhhh, it felt like someone had winded me, a breeze block thrown at the chest maybe. To not make too fine a point about it, it hurt. I found myself physically affected, nothing too major, and certainly it wasn’t beyond my grasp to refocus (luckily on the truly excellent Meaning Conference) but it actually pained me to get that email.

I strongly suspect that there will be people reading this thinking, yeh right, get a grip love. I’ve played those voices in my head ‘what makes you think you should have got the money anyhow’; ‘your idea wasn’t of the most use and who cares about talking about death…what were you thinking’; ‘oh come on, you’re obviously not half as clever/relevant/good/useful/smart as you think you are’ and so on, and so on. I’ve played them on loop most of the weekend.

Thing is I don’t think the odds were that bad, just over 1k applications, over 100 fellowships, that’s a 1 in 10 chance of getting one, so who knows how many they interview but to not even get that far, to fail at the first hurdle, it hurts. This is where the introspection was quite revealing…I think I’ve put myself out there a lot this year, I’ve risked more and been out of my comfort zone a lot, I don’t think it’s the failing itself that hurts in its own right, it’s something I care about failing.

Where I get to is that to apply for funding like that I had to construct a ‘what if’ dream scenario. I had to construct it and allow myself to live in it a little in order to put (what I thought was a good) application in. As with any of these things the thinking didn’t stop there and I’d been building mini scenarios in my head ever since I submitted it. I had great plans and ideas and I think, no scrub that I know, it’s a really important topic. This is work that I believe needs doing, and I screwed up, I failed and that hurts.

The physical hurt stopped fairly soon after, the more I think about it the pain subsides a little, guess its like bruising rather than anything more severe. Just a bit flat, deflated, disappointed and frustrated at myself. As the weekend has gone on the bruise is a little more present, altho I’ll be honest it doesn’t leave me feeling confident or wanting to risk much onto is topic again just yet, don’t want to catch another breeze block until am feeling more recovered.

Guess in the end it all comes down to self belief. I believed in the need for that work, I believed I could have done it well, I believe it’s important….hell I still believe all those things. Maybe I’ll try again next year, maybe I’ll try to crowd fund the money (thanks to Mike Baldwin for that idea), maybe I’ll reframe and reshape and move on. I’m not sure but if nothing else I guess it was a humbling and important reminder ahead of tomorrow….for now I need to focus on getting into TEDxBRS as I managed to leave my ticket in Devon (an unintentional #fail) that I hope I can recover from, I’ll listen attentively, muse some more and see where I get to. Sleep now, fail tomorrow, can’t wait.

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