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Failure doesn’t necessarily stink

An Cailín Rua

Anne-Marie Flynn

Learning from failure is the start of the road to success


Anne-Marie Flynn

YEARS ago, a few of us at home took the pioneering step of setting up a ladies’ football club. I’m not sure what notion - or desire for punishment – overtook us, but we managed to gather some bodies, rope in a trainer, and find a place to train.
Our first game loomed and the nerves started to kick in. “If we lose by less than ten points, it’ll be grand,” we told ourselves. It was our first game – what odds? We’d learn from failure. We got out onto the pitch. Fourteen of us went hell for leather towards the opposition goal. And that’s where it all started going wrong.
Fast forward two hours. Seventeen shellshocked women, getting back on the bus. To spare the blushes of those involved (in truth, for my own safety), I won’t disclose the exact score, but suffice to say, we lost by more than ten points. Multiples of it, more like.
Worse, we didn’t get a score on the board. Eighteen years later, it still ranks as one my most spectacular failures. But did we learn from it?
You bet we did.
Fear of failure
A week later, we welcomed new opposition to our own hallowed, sloping turf. Damage limitation was the order of the day and we left everything on the field trying to keep the opposition out. The blanket defence arrived to North Mayo long before it was even a glint in Mickey Harte’s eyes. By parking the bus, we reduced the losing margin by about 30 points (the fact that it was still double scores does not lessen the romance of this tale). We even managed to get a couple of points ourselves. By our standards, a resounding success and a lesson learned from the worst of failures. Unfortunately, that was as good as it got!
I often wonder though, why we are so afraid to fail in this country. Why the fear of failure looms over every endeavour, and why, should we not succeed, we feel shame? Why are we so reluctant to acknowledge our failures, be they personal or professional, and celebrate what we have gained from them?
I was chatting about this with a fellow countyman on a night out in Dublin once. It was a never-ending argument because obviously, both of us being from Mayo, neither of us could be wrong. We were discussing the promotion of a senior civil servant who had consistently dismissed a colleague’s warnings about the imminent property crash, to a top role in the Department of Finance. Was such an appointment an example of rewarding failure? Or was the man in question now blessed with hard-won knowledge and lessons learned that could be used to his – and our - advantage in future? Two years on, the country is still standing, so who knows.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly,”said Robert F. Kennedy, and the history books are full of tales of those who tried, failed and tried harder. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard, Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper for having no imagination and Thomas Edison made over a thousand attempts to invent the lightbulb. Yet despite evidence that the more you fail, the more you learn, we are poor at sharing that knowledge so that others can benefit. It’s said that almost 80 percent of Irish start-ups fail within the first five years, so why aren’t we talking about them? Those who have failed will tell you that they are essentially abandoned by the system, and find it hard to secure funding or support should they be brave enough to try again.

Learning from disappointment
Contrast this to other cultures where failure is almost celebrated; where taking another shot is the next logical step. There is even a global conference, FailCon, designed for entrepreneurs, investors and developers to study their own and others’ failures, ultimately to learn from them. In Silicon Valley, many founders of failed companies find it easier to raise capital when they try again, because investors recognise the experience gained from failed endeavours.
So be it business, politics, love or good old GAA, perhaps it’s time we started re-thinking in this country how we view failure, and start looking at it as a vital step on the road to success.