Connecting the dots: how failing can lead to success

“Everyone forgets that Icarus also flew.”

This is the opening line of Failing and Flying, by Jack Gilbert. A poem reminding us that failure is often preceded by success. In the ebb and flow of our lives the two are intertwined. Gilbert ends his poem with, “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell, but just coming to the end of his triumph.”

It’s easy to think of an ending as failure. To assume that what went well before, now means nothing. But there is much to learn when things don’t work out. Systemic therapists suggest we need to say goodbye with grace. We need to be aware of our behaviour at our endings. If we fail to acknowledge or be grateful for what we’ve gained, then we’re destined to face the same problems again and again.

But there are times when we find it too hard to say goodbye. One of my Spoon by Spoon interviewees, Silvia, said she had a stubborn streak. “I don’t let go easily. I can’t let go. I’ve always hung around in jobs longer than I should have.”

When we’re caught up in the grief of an ending, we find it hard to think about what comes next. We forget there is only so much space in one life. To start something new we must first let go of something old.

Jo set up a business but it didn’t work out, “When I started my business four years ago it was so stressful and I was snapping at my husband and taking it all out on him.” She had to give up, do other things and come back. “This time, it’s completely different. I am more relaxed, I’m more trusting that things are going to turn out. I’m much more chilled.”

Beginnings often hide themselves in endings

It’s easy to berate ourselves when we think we’ve failed. Helen used to say to herself, “Oh, you idiot, why did you do that stupid job? Why did you stay for so long when it was clearly damaging you?” She realises she’s quite hard on herself and is trying to learn not to be, “Now I look back at decisions or choices I’ve made and say, “You were doing the best that you could.” ”

Torsten has no compunction to stay when things aren’t working. He uses his mantra, “like it, change it or leave it” to assess his next steps. He knows that his skills are in demand, even if that means reverting to the type of work he did thirty years ago. “That has enabled me to say okay if it’s really shit I can try to change it.” But if that doesn’t work then he has the courage to leave.

We need to switch our mindset on failure. What doesn’t work today might pave the way for opportunity tomorrow. When Chris felt he had to leave a job he was in shock for a couple of months. But over time he came to realise it was what he needed, “Things that looked really terrible for me actually had huge benefits that I only saw a couple of years down the line.”

We also use different measuring sticks for failure, by judging ourselves much harder than we judge others. When we look at successful people we’re unaware of all their failures. We simply assume that they’ve had it all mapped out from the start.

You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” Steve Jobs

Jo agrees, “It’s having trust…that this is all meant to happen and it’s going to be for the greater good. We just can’t see it, yet.”

We need to ease up on ourselves and stop the internal dialogue on failure. We need to stop expecting it all to make sense. It’s hard to connect the dots whilst it’s a work in progress. We also need to realise that failing could be our biggest opportunity for success.

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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