I recently watched a TED talk by Michael Litt on why failure is necessary for success.
I don’t know why we don’t talk too much about our failures and mistakes. Maybe because we feel that they make us look bad… maybe we’re embarrassed… I’m not sure.
So…. in the spirit of learning from one’s mistakes, I’ve decided to share some of my most epic “failures” (and what I learned from them).
FAILURE #1: FAILING SCHOOL
For those who don’t know, I failed Standard 8 (10th Grade) in high school.
Following that, I dropped out of school and went to finish off my “matric equivalent” (N3 certificate) – at a technical college… (which, by the way, I also hated – but it wasn’t as excruciating as school).
I didn’t fail Standard 8 because I was stupid.
I failed because I rebelled completely against everything that school was – and what it stood for. I bunked classes and tests… I refused to study… I did everything that I was NOT supposed to do. I cannot begin to tell you how much I hated school… I absolutely loathed it (especially high school).
And I didn’t care whether I passed or failed – it all seemed so very pointless to me, so very irrelevant to my life and my future plans.
For a long time, I didn’t want to tell anyone that I failed Standard 8. I was worried that they would judge me. I was concerned that they would label me as stupid. It was something I didn’t talk about – and if someone else brought it up, I would steer the conversation elsewhere.
Some people might imagine that I look back upon those years and wish that I studied harder… or wish that I focussed on school and completed my matric. But the truth is this: I don’t (and never have) regretted dropping out of school when I did. My deep regret is that I didn’t do it sooner. My schooling damaged me.
Lesson I’ve learned? I absolutely do NOT want my children to be squished through the same sausage machine… and it’s one of the (main) reasons why we’re doing education differently.
FAILURE #2: A FAILED MARRIAGE
The topic of marriage deserves a book on it’s own. Mine failed for a number of reasons (and it’s not my intention to publicly attack my ex – so I’m not going in to any gory details here).
There are a number of lessons that I learned (the hard way) from my first marriage. I struggled (for many years afterwards) with some very deep self-esteem issues and intense feelings of failure and it took me a long time to learn how to love and accept myself again.
I learned my lesson well though… and I remained single for 7 years (after my divorce) before eventually dating (and later marrying) Nick. My decision to marry Nick was one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life – and we got married for all the RIGHT reasons. We’ve been married for 8 wonderful years….
With my first husband, I got married for all the wrong reasons… (the desire to have ‘legal sex’ being one of them)… (of all the stupid-stupid reasons for marrying somebody, that one has to top the list!)… (another very very stupid reason to get married is because one longs to feel pretty and special on one’s wedding day)… sigh
Because of my failed marriage, it is very important for me to help my children understand that marriage is NOT some fluffy little romantic idea. A great marriage is awesome – I’m the first to admit it. But, on the other hand, feeling trapped in an unhappy marriage can be one of the loneliest, most painful, damaging experiences (and I don’t want that for my kids!).
FAILURE #3: FAILING TO LOSE WEIGHT
This has been my life-long struggle.
(Another book could be written on this alone).
For most of my life – I felt like a useless failure because I could never seem to achieve a “thinness ideal” that I had set for myself. It was a magical number on the scale… a life-long goal… which all of my “if-only’s” revolved around. Because – if ONLY – I could lose weight and weigh 55 kilograms (121 pounds)… then everything would be wonderful. Life would be awesome. And I would live happily ever after.
From the age of 11 (which is, ironically, when I first started dieting) – I have yo-yo’d dramatically from mildly overweight to morbidly obese… back to mildly overweight… back to morbidly obese… and on and on and on it went.
Eventually, I grew tired of the obsession (and that’s exactly what it was for SO many years!)… the obsession over food… the obsession… over my body (and what it weighed)… the obsession about diets and the latest weight-loss scheme.
It devoured my life in such an all-emcompassing way… that I find it hard to even articulate.
Eventually, I said “Enough!!!”… and I had a gastric-band surgically installed. The surgery (which I had almost 3 years ago) instantly put an end to the extreme bingeing… but it didn’t “cure” me.
The band was the first step in the right direction and I don’t regret – for a moment – having it installed. I threw out the scale (awesome move!)… I refused to allow a weighing instrument to determine my worth. I also stopped dieting (another awesome move!) – and slowly started to trust my own body to tell me what it wanted to eat (and surprise surprise! It wasn’t always chocolate!).
I started eating like… a normal person… NOT a desperate dieter (I can’t begin to tell you what a difference that made). I ate when I was truly hungry – and I stopped when satisfied (not full). I made a concerted effort to stand in front of the mirror and heap encouragement and affirmation on to my body (instead of the usual hatred and self-loathing).
Did I lose weight? Yes. I’ve lost over 30 kilograms (66 pounds)… last time I checked (and I only checked because I went to the surgeon for a check up and he insisted on weighing me).
Have I aced the food addiction? Am I now… “cured”…?
No!! Food is my kryptonite. And I still eat way too much of the wrong kinds of food (and especially when I don’t LISTEN to my body).
Did I ever reach the weigh the “dream weight” of 55 kilograms?
Do I care?
A resounding no!
I’m so much happier in my own skin. I’m no longer obsessed with food or diets – or about what size clothes I wear – or what the number on a scale says about me. My worth is not determined by my weight. That… fact… has finally sunk in.
I’ve recently joined a gym. I go because I want to strengthen my body (and particularly my back)… and I want to get fit. I also like to swim. I also like to dance.
I may have failed to reach 55 kilograms… and I may have failed to become a bona-fide “thin person”… but honestly – I don’t care. I’m happy in my own skin and that’s what counts!
FAILURE #4: FAILING AT BUSINESS
I’m definitely the type that leaps before she looks. On one hand, I like this character trait. It’s really easy for me to take big risks – and I’m not afraid of trying something new or doing something differently.
On the other hand, we’d have saved a lot of money if I hadn’t just jumped in the deep end and launched businesses and initiatives that weren’t ready… or right.
Neverending Stories was an idea that I loved. I wanted to make personalised books for people who wanted to share their life stories or love stories (with relatives and friends). I made a batch of books containing my life story… and of course, our love story – and everyone raved about them. (Even our wedding invitation was a book!)
I put a lot of time, effort and money in to Neverending Stories – only to realise (fairly quickly) – that it was tiring, exhausting work… and although I liked the idea of making personalised books for people… I didn’t actually want to do the WORK of making books for people… and personalised books were way too expensive anyway (and out of the price-range of most folk).
Neverending Stories died a pretty quick death.
Another stupid mistake was opening up a shop in my home town of Benoni. The logic (behind my decision) was flawed from the start. I did it because I wanted to support my dear friend (who worked for me at the time… and who lived in Benoni). It was a hasty, stupid decision that never should have happened and it cost us a lot of money.
I have made many mistakes in business. Many.
Interestingly, my failed business ideas haven’t really negatively affected my self confidence (the failed marriage and failed weight-loss did far worse damage to my self-esteem than the failed business initiatives). I’ve always been a very optimistic person when it comes to new ideas, new initiatives or different ways to make a living. If one plan fails, then I’ll try something else. I’ve found it pretty easy to pick myself up and start over (when business plans go awry).
I have learned some important lessons about myself though. I’m definitely a visionary – and not a manager. My strengths lie in developing new ideas and launching new projects and initiatives. I don’t, however, enjoy the admin of keeping-things-going… or “maintaining”. My projects work well when I partner with people who have strengths that differ from mine. In fact, if there’s anything I’ve learned – it’s to partner with the right kinds of people!
And to delegate. And to look before I leap… at least every once in a while.
FAILURE #5: I SHOULDN’T HAVE STARTED THAT NGO…
This failure goes hand in hand with the business failures. It’s all about rushing in to something (with lots and lots of enthusiasm)… and then realising (too late) what I’ve actually gotten myself in to!
WOODO (Women who DO!) was an awesome idea and an awesome initiative (that I still believe in – very strongly!). Additionally… it worked. After launching WOODO, the response I got from women who wanted to DO was overwhelming. We filled a factory (to the ceiling in parts) with donations in a period of only 3 months. I was taken aback by how generous people are – and at how many people really WANT to help or make a positive difference in the world – but so few people know “how” – or even where to start…
I don’t know why I insisted on launching WOODO as an NGO. It was an expensive undertaking that required a LOT of irritating admin (which is draining and horrible work for a creative visionary such as myself). Once again, I leapt before I looked. I didn’t take in to consideration the kind of person I am… my strengths and weaknesses… and that I’m really not gifted with admin, organising, finances, fundraising – ironically: everything that WOODO needed as a baby NGO!
There were some really good people who helped out whenever they could (specifically, my friend Jo – who put in a massive amount of work). But the bulk of the responsibility lay on my shoulders – and I found myself suddenly dragged in to commitments and a long list of tasks that I really hated doing. It never should have happened like that.
It’s all very well wanting to do something good and worthwhile. However… if your “charity work” ends up being a burden… and you find yourself bogged down with loathsome tasks – you start becoming resentful of the cause – and instead of being useful or helpful, you become a thorn-in-the-side of the very cause you were trying to help.
I still want to do work that uplifts… that helps… that somehow makes the world a better place. The difference is that, from now on, I will only offer my STRENGTHS for that cause… and not ‘force’ myself to do the kind of work that makes me feel negative and resentful.
I’m going to shut down the WOODO NGO. I’ll keep WOODO open as a network of women who are interested in doing and helping and BEING the change they wish to see… but it will no longer be an NGO (which requires reams of admin, bank accounts, annual general meetings, board discussions, fundraising and all the stuff I hate).
And I will think very… VERY… carefully before attempting to launch another NGO.
Lessons have been learned! Nuff said!
Any thoughts from the readers of this blog? What epic failures have YOU learned from?