Failing is hard. No matter how many inspirational quotes you read about how every failure is a “stepping stone to success” and how the key is to “fail, fail again, fail better”, it still feels bloody awful. All of us will know that sinking feeling of getting a rejection letter, being told we haven’t got the job and – worst of all – finding out the project we’ve invested so much time in has been a complete and utter failure.
It’s no wonder that so few of us ever talk about it. Instead, when people ask us if we got that job, we tend to reply with a breezy, “Oh, no, but it wasn’t right for me anyway.” Even when it comes to relationships where the couple are on the verge of a break-up, the normal response is to say, “Everything’s fine,” until it’s painstakingly obvious it isn’t. The only time that people seem to happily discuss failure is when they have a neat “happily ever after” resolution that ends in success.
Unless they’re Lily Allen. The 33-year-old singer has just broken a huge taboo by admitting she feels like a failure. In an interview with Sky News this week, she spoke about how her third album was not the success she’d been hoping for. “I just felt like a massive failure, really,” she said. “And not just for myself, but that I’d let everyone else around me down, and that was a real struggle.”
She carried on the discussion with Jonathan Ross, explaining: “Sheezus, which was my last album, which was commercially a failure and creatively a failure, was a really low point for me and I had to re-evaluate everything and figure out what it was that I wanted and where I wanted to go.”
Her honesty is incredibly refreshing. She hasn’t just spoken about her failures – she’s admitted how “low” they made her feel. How she thought “what the f*** am I doing” when her music and album wasn’t doing well, and how it was “all just a bit much”. It’s hard enough for most of us to talk with this level of frankness about our failures to friends and family, but Allen has just done it on national television. Twice.
What makes it even more poignant is the fact that last night she was nominated for a Mercury Prize award. She’d spoken about how much she wanted to win it, saying it would make a huge difference to her life and help remove the “caricature image” of her in the press. But she lost out to Wolf Alice. It’s another public “failure” (let’s be honest, just being nominated is pretty damn amazing) and she was visibly upset when the result was revealed, but she’s handled it with her trademark honesty.
Her only crime is admitting just how badly she wanted to win, showing her emotions about it, being proud of her performance and proving that she’s as ambitious as hell
“Someone call 999 I’ve been robbed,” she tweeted, with a link to her performance. “I adore @wolfalice tho, and they are very deserved winners. Next time......... imma win that bitch.” Some people have already criticised her for being a sore loser, with the tabloids labelling it “bragging”, and a poor example of “saving face”. But that just rings of sexism. Allen has been more than respectful about Wolf Alice – her only crime is admitting just how badly she wanted to win, showing her emotions about it, being proud of her performance and proving that she’s as ambitious as hell.
To me, that’s just as admirable as the way she’s spoken about her failure. All too often, women are expected to be modest and polite about their work – to not talk about how debilitatingly painful it was to face rejection, and to not openly admit just how proud of themselves they are. If they do dare to do an Allen and talk about failure, it’s typically met with obvious discomfort and averted eyes, while any display of self-love is dismissed as “arrogant bragging”.
I have personal experience of this. I’ve had (male) colleagues roll their eyes at me when I’ve said I was proud of myself for handling a complex situation badly or coming up with a good idea. One of them – in what I can only assume was a fit of sexist jealousy – once snapped: “Are you ever not proud of yourself?” (Nope.)
But, several years ago, I wasn’t so proud of myself. I spent a long time feeling like a failure when my second novel didn’t sell as many copies as my first. If people asked how it did, I’d laugh it off and say, “Oh, you know, the first did better, but it’s all fine! Great even!” When I finally managed to tell someone the truth, I felt so much better. I realised that the pain of the failure was one thing, but I was adding huge levels of shame to it by not speaking out. So, I told everyone the truth and felt the weight of the failure start to dissolve. The only problem was that people kept responding with uncomfortable smiles, trying to reassure me it “probably wasn’t as bad as I thought”.
It is a huge shame that society still encourages us to keep our failures behind closed doors, until we have a JK Rowling-worthy moment, where our endless struggles are transformed into dazzling success. The only thing this attitude does is make people feel embarrassed by their so-called failures and amplify the fear around failing. It’s why it’s so important that people like Allen are breaking away from this mould and finally talking about the messy reality of failure, success and everything in between.