What is failure anyway?

This week I was very excited to take part in my very first podcast experience with Chris Garvey from Habitual HK. I was lucky to have an article from Chris in the first WISEducation newsletter on ‘finding perspective post-pandemic’ and felt fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Chris and explore some deep and interesting questions relating to wellbeing and the future of wellbeing in schools. Chris asked what ‘wellbeing’ meant to me and how it should be best placed in schools. Interestingly, despite me writing about wellbeing in education, putting some of my thoughts and feelings into words about what I really thought wellbeing meant was no easy task!

I strongly believe that wellbeing is concerned with a greater self-awareness and understanding of our own thoughts and behaviours. It is also about being able to cope with what life throws at us and growing from these experiences, as well as continuing to figure out ‘who we are’ during difficult times. 

A book I have been reading recently that jumped out at me when thinking about the questions that Chris asked was The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip and Dan Heath. This book examines the mysteries of experience and explores the idea of living life in ‘moments’; the idea that some of the key defining and memorable experiences of our lives are those that occur in (short-lasting) ‘moments’. 

The book posits four main elements that memorable ‘moments’ consist of; elevation, insight, pride and connection. 

The one that I want to focus on in this article is the insight that can enable these moments to take place, and the relationship to what the Psychologist Roy Baumeister terms as  ‘crystallization of discontent’.

Crystallization of discontent’ refers to…

‘a subjective process in which the individual concludes that the negative aspects of a certain life condition outweigh the positives. Until that point, the individual engages in maintaining the view that the positives outweigh the negatives (e.g. by contextualizing or otherwise minimizing the importance of the negatives), thereby enabling the person to keep a rosier big picture and to maintain the current life condition.’

The book tells the story of a woman (let’s call her Katherine) who works as a vet nurse but worries that she has maximised the payroll and promotion possibilities as well as being concerned that this job is a ‘young person’s job’. 

As such Katherine explores the possibility of turning her hobby (baking) into a job with the dream of opening her own bakery. Katherine worked tirelessly and made this happen whilst continuing to work her 9-5 job, taking all of the business she could get with the hope of one day being able to run the bakery on a full-time basis. 

However, the charm of baking as full-time profession eventually wore off and this gave way to an endless cycle of feeling stuck and burned out. 

One day as she loaded a cake into her car she left the door to her bakery open. For her, this became a lightning bolt moment of ‘I’m crazy for burning myself out doing this’, ‘I don’t love this anymore’. 

This moment helped her come to the realisation that she didn’t want to own a bakery. She realised that she could end up investing all of her money in the bakery, and taking out huge loans for something that she didn’t love anymore, and may not be able to financially recover from.

She closed the bakery.

Whilst this may not be the ending that we would hope for (we love a success story, especially if it involves overcoming some sort of struggle), would we define this a failure? 

If you adopt a narrow definition of failure as ‘not succeeding’, then perhaps yes. However, as I’m sure we’ve all experienced, things (thankfully) are never that simple. 

What we learn from this example in the book is that Katherine didn’t regret opening the bakery, nor did she regret closing it. Instead she gained the ‘insight’ that comes from experience. Katherine defined herself as disorganised, impractical and fickle, which whilst making her a fun friend, didn’t necessarily make for a good business owner.

The moment when she realised that she didn’t want to run the bakery anymore represents the self-insight that comes from a ‘crystallization of discontent’ moment. 

“It’s not me. I’m no good at this”

And that’s ok.

Sometimes we endure these failures, and sometimes we experience these failures and we change. Either way, we experience growth.

To bring this idea of self-insight and ‘crystallization of discontent’ into an educational context I just want to finish with a couple of thoughts.

Sometimes in earnest we encourage students to endure (and rightly so) as we have high hopes for what they can become. My worry in doing this, is that sometimes we don’t always create an environment for allowing students to figure out what they’re not, which is just as powerful and can lead to positive change. 

Sometimes our most powerful growth comes from hard realisations, and figuring out who we are may be a life-long pursuit. For me the state of being well means being who we are, just as much as learning who we’re not. Failure is not to fail but to grow. 

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