exploring art and writing

Failing Moments.

In Identity, Life, Stressed on February 3, 2012 at 7:39 pm

'Sisyphus' by Edward Burne-Jones, circa 1870. Tempera on paper.

What does it mean to fail in the twenty-first century? There are a few immediate responses that have been looming in front of me recently and they are mostly connected to education and income. Scouring my memories of school, university and employment, the following suggestions are their very own bundles of dread. These are the most immediate (and mysteriously similar) categories that come to mind:

Failure is to not do well academically: to fail exams, to drop out of university, to get a low grade, to not constantly improve yourself intellectually, to not read, to not understand specific ways of thinking.

Failure is to be weak: to be unfit, to have excess weight, to rely on family, to be ill, to have anxiety, to have depression, to not be able to cope with a job, to not be able to cope without a job, to leave a job, to show anger.

Failure is to not succeed: to not be able to find a job,  to have a minimum wage job, to not work for free in the hope that it will lead to a job, to not be ambitious, to not find a job that is relevant to your degree.

And, above everything else, it is a failure to not be able to cope with these failures; to be unable to accept your situation and to be too weak to get yourself out of it. And so the current job market – and the necessity for constant further education – speaking from a graduate’s perspective, feels like a trap.

Let me explain this perhaps too-bitter sentiment. In secondary school (and often before) our lives were directed towards one goal: university. A degree. Then you get the degree and leave university. If you look hard enough or if you’re lucky you find a job, any job, until you realise you’re not qualified for the area of work that you want to do. So to get there you have to go back to university and get an MA or MSC. You do that, while constantly being reminded that no amount of qualifications and determination is a guarantee of success.

Along the way, if you have the drive, you do voluntary work for organisations in addition to your job. You offer free labour in return for experience. And as the months turn into years you begin to hear certain phrases as if played on a broken record: “It’s voluntary, but it will look great on your CV!,” “I shouldn’t complain really, at least I have a job,” “I don’t care any more, I just want to pay the rent without having to resort to benefits” and “I can’t leave.” The feeling of powerlessness can be overwhelming.

We don’t trust anyone any more. We lack community. We must constantly compete. We were disillusioned and, as a consequence, life consists mostly of shock and dormant rage. And yes, these problems are infinitesimal compared to other crisis’ occurring daily around the globe. But tell that to your serotonin levels. They will not listen.

So how can we turn this situation on its head and allow optimism to thrive? How can we sustain creativity? Yes, it’s difficult to find the drive after a working day, and it sucks being away from your loved ones because you have had to move for a job or for a course. But, as the saying goes, you only live once.

The problem with this is that the pressure to optimise your life is sometimes the worst pressure of all. It is the ultimate bringer of failure. And I want rid of it.

I’m not a professional. I’m not qualified to give competent advice on the matter. What I can suggest, however, is ignoring what we know to be failures in our current society. If you drop out of university because you hate it, good. If you leave your job because it takes the piss, great. If you’re not willing to do voluntary work for organisations that take advantage of struggling graduates and unemployed people, excellent.

And remember: no matter how isolated the situation feels, there is a mass of people out there who can empathise. Also, do a little (or a lot) of what you love – no excuses – and consider that a painting doesn’t need to be seen by a thousand people in order for it to be appreciated.

J. K. Rowling speaks about failure in her commencement speech for Harvard University, seen here on TED. She somehow transforms the subject of failure from one of despair to one of inspiration and optimism. Sure, most of us won’t reach the summits of Rowling’s success, but at least she is taking the time to let us know that it’s OK to mess up every once in a while.

And sometimes that’s all a person needs: a little reminder that, just because you can’t cope, you are not a failure.

  1. Thank you, I think I needed that. Sometimes brushing off judgement and saying I’m “gainfully unemployed” doesn’t feel like much of a joke at all.

  2. Hi Lucy

    This is a poignant piece of writing that eloquently expresses how I suspect a lot of people are thinking and feeling and I’m glad that you ended on an optimistic note. I find myself needing to be as optimistic as possible these days, so although your piece indulged me for a moment, it quickly reminded me that I need to go forward!

    Thanks Lucy.


  3. Lucy, this is so true for many people out there. A really well-written, emotive post.

  4. I’ve lost count of the number of conversations I’ve had discussing my circumstances that have ended in tears of exasperation. When I look back over the last 4 years or so, to my first attempt at university onwards, all I can see of my life is a string of not-so-spectacular failures. Whether it be coping (or rather – not coping) with illness or stress, tumbling out of unsuccessful relationships, dropping studies or leaving jobs, there always seems to be another something around the corner to kick you while you’re down… Thing is, though, I’m still here. Granted, here isn’t anywhere near where I thought I’d be at 24, but all things considered… It could be so much worse. I still have a brain, even if it’s chemically imbalanced, and as long as I KNOW i’m not a failure, I can keep on fighting the feeling that I am.

    Chin up, Lucypoo. Love you lots x

  5. A good rallying call this drizzly February morning. Thanks, Lucy.
    I heard Dr Steve Peters (The Chimp Paradox) on Midweek, which gives another good perspective and determination to press on.

  6. @L.E. Wright That is so true! After I read your post, I had to step back a minute and breathe! Literally, just last night, I was just speaking with my mother and cousin about the very same thing. See, I used to be one of those people who thought that because I was doing things at my own pace and rhythum that if others criticized me for it, I was wrong or doing things too slowly or too quick. As the years went by, I realized that it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about how we do things. It’s all about comfort and our own levels of ability. Every single human on this earth has great abilities and different abilities. One thing that might take one person 1 hour can take only a mere five minutes for another. Such the same goes in accordance with failing. Some might succeed at something while others might not. Success isn’t measured by how much one achieves. It’s measure by how much you’re still achieving and the passion you put into it. Failure is just a part of life and a great learning experience. 😀

  7. Also, I am finally getting back into blogging on this site! I’ve missed it so much but I’v been so busy at my University…. But I am getting back into it because it’s just such a great release and I’ve been on the ball with my assingnments so I have a little extra time ( at times) haha How have you been? I’ve missed reading your posts and posting as well. I hope all is well with you, Lucy. Never stop inspiring!

  8. also, I forgot to mention in my previous comment on here.. ( sorry for all of the comments!!!) I hope I’m not annoying you oyy vey.. but I wanted to mention that since you appreciate the arts, I thought you might want to take a listen to this song called Neglected Space by Imogen Heap. It’s one of her newest songs and it’s absolutely beautiful! She is a huge inspiration to me and many because she writes all of her own songs, writes the sheet music, plays the instruments and has her own studio. She’s British so you might know of her. This song by her really touches me deeply when I listen to it. It’s a very complex song and can be taken in many ways. It’s a wonderful and poetic song. I am recommending it to you. Here is the link. I hope you get as much from this song as I have.

    • Hi Britt,

      thanks for commenting, you’re always so kind. It’s good to see you back on WP! I’ve been away from it for a while too, but I have a few drafts at the ready. And thank you for the Imogen Heap song – I’ve heard a few of her songs over the years but never sat down and listened to her properly. Glad this post spoke to you. Keep up the beautiful poems!


      • no problema ! I love reading your stuff because it’s so insightful and you really do write beautifully. I cannot tell a lie 🙂 I’m glad you enjoyed the Imogen Heap song. She really can open your mind if you listen to what she has to say. I think that Imogen has written more maturely lately, since she’s older and is more herself now. Thanks for welcoming me back! I’m happy to be back, believe me. It’s been a very eye-opening 2 years for me so most of my poetry will be about those experiences and how I have changed and grew as a person. I hope they will inspire people and get them to feel, think, understand and see things through another persons eyes. I can’t wait to read your new stuff as well! I’m to hear all is well. ~Britt

  9. Don’t get too optimistic. Its all shit, downhill, and dpressing from here.

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