Failure as liberation

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I tend not to subscribe to common definitions of failure. For many of us, the word triggers many emotions – like self-judgement, unworthiness and even shame. Yet we all experience challenges sometimes. Relationships end, projects do not work out, risks turn out badly, and habits we regret are hard to break. But when things don’t go as planned it’s not a definitive statement of our value or our worthiness. Instead, it may speak to our capability and capacity at a particular moment.

Everyone encounters situations that lead us to question ourselves. That’s probably why so many self-help books focus on urging us to pick ourselves up from our failures, to persist, to keep trying, to regard failures as paths of growth and change, and to embrace the possibility that we can use experiences of failure as a tool to inoculate ourselves against fearing it.

While some experiences can feel like failure and lead to emotions such as disappointment, disillusionment and despair, it is surprising how seldom the dominant narratives about failure consider how these may be located within capitalist models and logic, driving a binary approach that judges things as either success or failure. As a result, contemporary capitalist paradigms are left unchallenged to frame failure and success as yardsticks for measuring our abilities to ‘get ahead’, ‘be productive’ and ‘accumulate wealth’.

In my coaching practice, I hear many accounts of self-judgement for not meeting certain standards or not completing a contest in ways our current matrix of existence deems ‘best’. Interestingly, our failure responses are measured unconsciously and very few of us will pause to question if current definitions of ‘success’ are worth aspiring to. Judith Halberstam, in her book The Queer Art of Failure, challenges these unconscious definitions and invites us to consider that under certain circumstances failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming and not knowing may in fact offer more creative, more cooperative and more surprising ways of being in the world. For example, not finishing a project after many attempts may offer us valuable information on the nature of the project itself and its relationship to the person blindly striving towards completing it in a certain way.

Reclaiming narratives about success and failure

A significant memory of failure in my own life happened in my third year of university. Looking back, I forced my way into university, despite a lack of money and support. Although my family never explicitly said I could not go to university, they questioned why I would insist on going to when we really needed another income in the home. Nevertheless, I was insistent and found myself accepted to university. I managed to get a loan (with the help of one of my teachers) and a part bursary. However, swimming outside of my lane meant that I also needed money for books and transport costs. I asked my parents to provide the transport costs and then I set up a stall at the flea market on weekends to cover other costs. But the stress of obtaining the necessary resources weighed heavy on me and impacted my ability to focus on my studies. I moved from being a top student at my school to barely passing my subjects. I held on for two-and-a-half years, but eventually, the process of solving one problem only for another to pop up wore me down. I finally got to the point where I had to make the difficult decision to drop out of university. At that moment, I felt like a monumental failure.

Because I did not have the language or a political understanding of the broader system that I was working in, and how this system was set up to push me beyond my limits, I took this failure personally. I felt incompetent and incapable. I even blamed myself for daring to dream that I could transcend my material situation (combined with other areas of challenge). I remember pulling back into myself and feeling chastised for daring, for hoping and for having ideals. Even though I managed to find some work that enabled me to keep moving, I remained immersed in this personal narrative of failure for at least two years. Like so many others, I insisted that the failure was my own. Now I can see that this insistence emanated from the capitalist ideology of positive thinking, one that asserts that the only measure of success is to work hard and persevere. Hidden in this narrative was the judgement that my failure was my own doing – that it was due to my inability to rise above and beat the system. Years later when I managed to achieve success, as defined by our neoliberal system, many would ask me, ‘How did you manage to make it when others did not?’ At that stage, I still failed to see how the very nature of this questioning strove to promote individual exceptionalism. I too was blinded by how the system sustains itself through individualistic competition and narratives that claim that only the strongest survive or thrive.

Granted, at a personal level, failure helps increase our resilience as we have to pick ourselves up and continue in the face of things we cannot change and we learn to adapt and understand that things won’t always turn our as we imagine. They have the potential to make us stretch and adapt beyond our comfort zones. However, when we passively accept failure rather than locating them in the contexts of oppressive systems, we become complicit and complacent; accepting the status quo as well as accepting narratives that allow systems of oppression to remain unchanged.

I understand that it is exhausting to constantly have to view everything through the lens of dismantling inner and outer systems of oppression, and we might even get it wrong. Yet, if we truly want to reclaim narratives about success and failure, we have to acknowledge that systems and processes occasionally stand in the way of collective or individual success. This means we must know when we have the power and responsibilities to challenge and change systems and when we need to subvert or leave a system without feeling shame. By doing so, we actively demonstrate that we are willing to fail and lose our way. As a result, we open ourselves up to counterintuitive forms of resistance.

Tips for dealing with failure

We can subvert dominant narratives of failure and white supremacy principles of one right way, perfectionism, paternalism, objectivity, and [a need to be] qualified” in the following ways:

1. Take risks and ​learn from our experiences

This approach encourages us to accept that life is filled with risks and things will not always go as we planned. Instead of feeling shame when this happens, we can view it as an invitation to see things from a fresh perspective, and to assess whether our current methods are context-appropriate and offer opportunities to adapt or adopt new ways.

2. Accept individual limitations

It is important to be transparent about the limits of our own knowledge, our expectations, our assumptions and our mistakes. This will allow us to learn from constructive feedback, accept outside knowledge and acknowledge the need to brainstorm with supportive peers. When we respond collectively we are able to let go of the exhausting task of holding ourselves individually responsible for our failures and instead focus on collaboratively creating systemic interventions.

3. Think and act collectively

When it becomes safe to accept failure and to speak about it transparently, we allow ourselves to collectively reevaluate and develop new directions. We stop individual acts of hiding, advising or fixing. In this way our mistakes unearth cultural humility, expand our knowledge of shared and individual contexts and allow us to let “go of the belief that we are qualified to define reality for ourselves and others”.

4. Look at it through a systemic lens

A systemic lens allows us to acknowledge that failure and harm often results from the failure of oppressive systems rather than flawed individuals. When we acknowledge that failure is not always about us as individuals but rather occurs within bigger intersecting systems, we are liberated because we are able to assess the different ways in which the system obstructs us, how we can get around it and even how we can smash it – as opposed to feeling defeated by it.

Author: Shamillah Wilson

Author: Shamillah Wilson

This post was first published 2 July 2024.

Shamillah Wilson is a writer, speaker, thought leader and feminist life coach. She supports activists and leaders to navigate systemic challenges and to achieve greater fulfilment, freedom and success as they work to transform our world into a just place for all.

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