I was in the middle of my first-ever yoga class when I realised that I was going to royally humiliate myself in it. The first half-hour had already been pretty humiliating. I’d wobbled my way through tree pose, turned a violent shade of beetroot during the vinyasa and shed a small tear in my 10th downward dog. However, it was the moment that the teacher suggested we take a shoulder stand that was really my undoing. Not only could I not get my legs to stay in the air, the combined effect of gravity and over-sized breasts meant I was slowly choking to death. It was my own form of autoerotic asphyxiation and it wasn’t even happening quietly – I was snorting like a pig that had just found a truffle. When it came to yoga, I was a total and utter failure.
It’s strange then that, despite this humiliating episode, I continued to go back to that yoga class, continued to sweat and snort my way through each session and continued to miss anything that Instagram might recognise as an actual yoga position. But I’d become addicted to something we tend to shy away from: I’d become addicted to failing.
Like most people, I’d been raised to see failure as something that we should, at all costs, avoid. I can still remember my little sister wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “If you can’t win, don’t play”. It was meant as a joke, I think, but I took it very seriously. I learnt early on that I was good at learning facts and figures, terrible at anything that required me to run. So I focused on getting good grades, on being the smartest in the class and on coming up with really creative excuses to get me out of PE. But, when I started to fail regularly at yoga, I realised that not only was it fun, but it also made failing at everything else a little less scary.
None of us wants to get something wrong, but if we stop seeing failure as something to be avoided and start seeing it as something that happens on the way to success, it starts to seem almost like a win
Of course, if I’d paid a little more attention to sports, I might have realised this earlier. Sports psychologists have known for years that there’s something to be learnt in every failure. After all, however good an athlete you are, there are always going to be matches you don’t win. You can either sit at home and mourn these, decide you’re never going to play again, or you can look at what you did well and what you need to improve.
For Dr Katherine Bond, a sports psychologist who worked with Olympians and Paralympians in the last Games, measuring performance as well as the final result is key to improvement.
“The highest performers and the most successful people learn from both failure and success,” she says. “So many environments we are in, be it business and work, sports or even our home lives, require us to be obsessed with results. Having a regular review process for performance, whatever the outcome, is vital. Working out what will be done differently, what to do more of, feeding that into a plan and actually taking action will ultimately upgrade performance.”
Understanding how failure can aid our development requires us to adopt what Carol Dweck, psychology professor at Stanford University, calls a growth mindset. This is the belief that you can get better at whatever you’re doing; when you believe this, you put in more effort and consequently improve more. Also, when we stop valuing the result (being able to hold a handstand, for example) and start valuing the effort (falling over 10 times but getting up 11), we actually change our brains so that we’re more inclined to work harder and appreciate the process, rather than just look for a quick win.
Of course, this doesn’t stop failure being any less scary. None of us wants to get something wrong, particularly if it means we damage our own lives or the lives of others, but we can start to harden ourselves to failure. If we stop seeing failure as something to be avoided and start seeing it as something that happens on the way to success, it starts to seem almost like a win.
When I left my full-time job in July to become a freelancer, I was terrified that I’d never work again. At first, everything seemed OK; work came in and I felt like a success. Then, in the space of a week, I had my book proposal rejected from nearly every publisher in London, I had a total of eight article pitches turned down and the guy I was seeing disappeared from view.
At first, I panicked. In fact, I panicked for about two weeks. And then I started to think of all the things I’d learnt in this process. I thought about how I was going to improve my pitching, going forward. I gave thanks for the time that was freed up by not having to worry about how on earth I was actually going to write 70,000 words of a book. And I did a little dance of joy that the wrong man had been removed from my life before I got too attached. I fired up my laptop and started pitching, and the work came in. And, when it did, I took myself to a yoga class, failed to do a shoulder stand yet again and enjoyed every minute of it.
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