“It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”
― Theodore Roosevelt
I have a little secret.
I am a failure. People may scoff and look at everything I’ve done and tell me otherwise, but I know intimately and constantly the feeling of being an utter failure. Of letting others down. Of letting myself down. Of wishing that I had never undertaken such a folly. Of not being able to cope under the weight of expectations. Evidence of this great and utter disappointment sits in boxes under the spare bed at my parent’s place, as well as a box in the cupboard and three shelves of books. It is the culmination of 3 years of blood, sweat, and many, many tears; and a further 5-10 years that led to that abortive project. And every time I look in the mirror, despite all other successes, choices made, and lessons learnt, I still see that failure first and foremost.
I think it is particularly hard for competitive people. Especially those who are in disciplines (academic/physical/professional) where your biggest competitor is yourself. Where there are others in the competition, but they stand on the periphery. You are the person setting the goals and objectives, and you have to live with your failures – real and perceived – every day. Compliments, well-wishers, and the added weight of expectations that others bring to bear on you, whilst done with the best of intentions (like the road to hell), can actually make things worse if you don’t achieve what you set out to do.
It is difficult for those who have not been in a situation like that to fully understand what is going on in your mind. Context is an important thing. In my case, yes – I have two Masters Degrees. I had a scholarship for a PhD, and went to the UK to see some of the most amazing pieces of literature and manuscripts and touch them. I changed topic completely with a year and a half to go, and still managed a full and complete draft with no time extension. I was working two jobs while doing this. And despite all that, I walked away. There weren’t many choices open to me in the end. I could have stamped my foot and been insistent, but I didn’t have the energy left at the point. I was broken. I failed.
My life’s goal was to have my PhD before I was 30. I was on track to have it with years to spare. After that? Well, I hadn’t thought any further. I still have no idea what I want to do or be. But all I know is that I didn’t achieve that goal. That I may never put that particular part of my life to rest, complete with a bound copy and embossed lettering on the spine and front cover, and 3 more letters after my name pains me constantly. I hate loose ends. And for that I will always be a failure of academic proportions.
I have only learnt to really manage this by virtue of being a sibling of a golf professional. My brother is many things, and a failure is not one of them – yet he can list for me each and every mistake he has made and failure he has had on the golf course – but as the immortal Bobby Jones said:
“Golf is a game that is played on a five-inch course – the distance between your ears.”
This can be applied to any discipline where 90% of what happens is in your mental preparation.
Andy fails in competitions and misses the cut from time to time. He gets nothing for the travel, the missed earnings for being there – anything. And sometimes he makes the cut and doesn’t perform to the best of his abilities and it could be as though he shouldn’t have even walked onto the course that morning. But he does. And like the rest of us highly competitive people, he will be very upset with himself for not living up to his expectations, and disappointing those of us who support him. And yet, despite of this, he just works to get better. He learns from these failures, and tries to apply them in future rounds. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But the places he has been to, the people he has met and coached to success, and things he has done he can owe as much to his failures as to his successes. The fact that he is out there now living the dream and doing what the Guru does best makes me so proud of him. And this gives me hope and humbles me.
That still doesn’t make my failure any less bitter than it is, but it doesn’t take away from everything else I have done on the path that I have taken. It does mean that when somebody asks me if I know what being a failure is like, I can say I am absolutely certain that I do know, I do understand, the feeling returns in sympathy.
The problem is there is nothing that can be said or done to make somebody who has failed feel better. There is either understanding or there isn’t. Until that failure is replaced by something else, it will remain – open or buried – and it will weigh on the mind. The trick is to learn from it. But again, that is easier said than done.
So I’m about to go and embark on an adventure that, despite everything, could see me fail at the course I’m going to do. I haven’t been in the right headspace, and I haven’t done nearly enough training. I have been preoccupied with other things. I will be over the moon if I meet all the requirements (it’s the third one I’m particularly nervous about), and I will be utterly gutted if I don’t. This is not me setting myself up to fail. This is me being realistic. I need the break, and it’s going to be amazing – and freediving, like golf, has as much mental prep as it does skill in it – but I am never not competitive. One day I will learn how to relax. But today is not that day. Next week may be that week, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
See you on the other side. There may even be photos.