What Failure Taught Me

“Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.” — Nelson Mandela.

Failure has defined my life. Since that day back in August 1996 when I experienced the first major failure of my academic life, I have been sensitive to failure and, crucially, always tried to learn from my mistakes.

I can remember the day like it was yesterday. My schoolmates and I arrived at school to collect our A-level results. We clambered over one another like wildebeest at the watering hole, around the teachers giving out our result envelopes.

I did not expect to do that well since my 6th Form years can loosely be described as a two-year on-site school party. But, I did not expect to fail as well. Average grades were my expectation and were fully prepared to take on my engineering degree that Autumn.

But, the universe wanted to teach me a lesson. And, boy, did it teach me one. Upon opening the envelope containing my future, I gazed upon results that were career-defining. I had failed everything. Every. Single. Subject. Maths, physics and chemistry.

The feeling of regret was palpable and the shock sent my stomach into a recess somewhere between my bowel and my intestines. My friends rejoiced at their results — rightly so — whilst I remember sitting on a chair, staring into space. I got the usual “it’s ok” and “don’t worry” wishes from the gathered throng but I was in too much of a shock to care.

Fast forward three months and I did indeed enter university in September. I was accepted into a foundation programme focused on science and engineering. After three months of regret, anger and rumination, I made some hard decisions and decided to never experience what failure felt like ever again. A decision. Simple as that.

I was to learn that results of the decisions are enshrouded in symbolism, habits and sheer hard work. On stepping into the engineering department for the first time, to register with the other dropouts on my course, I vowed to leave this institution with a First Class degree. The pain of failure was to be the fire in my engine. Positivity out of negativity coupled with the sheer desire to succeed by any means necessary.

On that day, happened upon a second-year aeronautical engineering student who was loitering in the main corridor of the building. As the universe decided to tear my world asunder a few months back, it now gave me a lifeline in the form of this man. He did not know me from Adam but, as I walked towards him he stopped me and looked me straight in the eye and said the following words: “it’s all about desire.” I shit you not. That was it. I never saw him again in my seven years at university and but I that moment is etched into my psyche.

The next four years of my undergraduate saw me working like a machine. A machine fuelled entirely by those feelings of despondency and regret experienced that fateful day in August. I subsequently graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Aeronautical Engineering and that opened all of the doors that you’d expect such a qualification to open.

There have been many failures since, in all aspects of my life and, as much as life keeps on kicking me down I will always get up.

Here’s what I learned (and am still learning) from failure:

  • You get what you deserve — if we fail at work or at school, it is generally because we have not put the work in. It is oft said that there is no substitute for hard work. This is forever true. However, if we fail due to circumstances outside of our control then this, obviously, does not apply.
  • Failure is temporary — failure is a bruise and not a tattoo. As long as we are breathing then we have hope. We should go easy on ourselves and accept that we have failed. Give ourselves time to reflect and learn from our experience.
  • Embrace the fear — failure can burn within the mind and the gut like a roman candle, never to be extinguished. It can generate a fear that prevents us from taking the next step or even repeating that task or communicating with that person. We should use this fear for good. We should use the memories of those emotions caused by failure to power the lessons that we have learned from it. In this way, we can use failure as the perpetual engine that drives success.

What have been your failures? Maybe you have never failed (I’d love to hear about your stories if that is the case)? How have you used failure for good? Hit me up in the comments below.

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