My biggest failure tasted of liverwurst on rye bread, smelled of 4711 Eau de Cologne, sounded like the opening credits of Days of Our Lives and felt like fear. Instead of going to my university lectures, I sat beside Oma on her couch watching Bo and Hope’s relationship play out on the daytime soap. I had failed to go to most of my classes at teacher’s college, and so I was kicked out of the program.
Few of us want to fail in life— much less dwell on past failures. But recently I discovered Elizabeth Day’s How to Fail podcast, and it’s got me thinking. Each week the British journalist interviews notable people about their failures, from Bernie Sanders failing to win the U.S. Democratic nomination in 2016 to Scottish actor Alan Cumming trying and failing to have children. Most importantly, the podcast explores how failure taught each guest how to succeed later in life.
Day was inspired to launch How to Fail after her first long-term relationship post-divorce ended. “Staring down the barrel of my 40s, single, divorced and without the children I longed for,” she said in a 2021 interview, “my life looked very different from how I’d thought it would be.”
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I understand how she feels. I had wanted to be a teacher since I was a little girl, and I failed. It changed the trajectory of my life, and accompanying that failure was a long-standing sense of shame that loomed over me like a shadow. I have failed many times since then, too: at keeping jobs and a marriage, at protecting my boundaries and my finances. We’re often told to embrace our failures. But my failures? They didn’t feel like anything I’d want to wrap my arms around.
What I have finally been able to acknowledge, however, is that failure is one of the most human experiences imaginable. In one episode of How to Fail, Day interviews British philosopher Alain de Botton about the concept of being a good person yet still failing. He talks of how the ancient Greeks put on plays of great tragedies: “It brings you close to dark possibilities, and it teaches compassion and feeling for the other person lying on the floor.”
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My own failure eventually led me to pack a rucksack and leave Australia behind, landing in Toronto wearing red Doc Martens on a wintry evening knowing absolutely no one else in the city. Now, I’ve spent as much time in Canada as I’ve spent out of it.
Failing means we have risked trying something new. It means having the courage to try, even if we do not succeed. I think of how my failure didn’t as much erase the map I had for my life, but rather revealed new topogra- phy to explore. “There isn’t only one script for success,” says de Botton. “There’s always a Plan B.’’
While I didn’t become a teacher, the gift of my failure has led me to become a writer. Here I am now writing these words, and here you are reading them. How can that be a failure?
Amanda Lee is a freelance writer and editor in Toronto.
This article first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2024 issue with the title “The Art of Failing.”
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