The bravery in failure by Alliyah Dawud

What is failure?

What does it look like?

Does it smell a certain way?

Who defines what is meant by failure?


What if I said to you we’ve been fooled for centuries as to what failure actually is. What failure feels like. What it looks like and ultimately what it really means and stands for.

Pick up a dictionary and the definition we are taught is that failure is a lack of success. Lack: the state of being without or not having enough of something. For as far as humans can remember success is the benchmark, standardised for everyone to follow and set their dreams by. From our caveman ancestor taking on a saber tooth tiger to that wealthy business man that lives down the road from us in 2022.

Our standards are not our own; and never have been. All because we have been taught what failure means. Rather than experiencing it and learning how to move past it.

As humans we fear what we do not know or have not experienced. For most of us familiarity is a comfort zone we rarely seldom wander out of. And this is a pattern we pass down via our own behaviours and mindset without even acknowledging its power on those around us.

The unknown is like the bogey man, or what lurked beneath our beds when we were small children. We never actually saw these with our own eyes: our fear was enough to override our rational thinking. The fear of failure is just like that.

‘Creatures of habit hiding behind fear’

Failure, or what we perceive it to be, becomes ingrained into our belief systems as we get older and become adults. For many adults failure is feared as it is deeply embedded in the unknown. Not knowing what will happen if we take a road less or never travelled by us. What will happen if we do something new. What this new experience will lead to. We are creatures of habit who hide behind our fears to avoid delving into something new. Something uncharted. We hold back from trying something new because if we do not try we cannot fail. Eureka. We are protecting ourselves.

Recently I have witnessed through the eyes of young people what failure is in definition to them – and how different that is  to what adults believe. I spent some time with young people in a primary school working on a production called Epic Fail.

For these children, failure is something that happens and they move on. When I asked the group about failure and how it makes them feel, one young girl said: “It’s not like the world is going to blow up, nothing’s going to happen. If you get something wrong you can always try again”.

Yes it stirs many emotions amongst them but it’s nothing that will stick to their thoughts or shape their tomorrow. They do not fear it; in fact most are happy to embrace it. One or two even said they “didn’t care” if they failed because it wasn’t the ultimate act of their lives. 

‘A blip, not a mountain’

When talking to another group of young children, not connected to Epic Fail,  it was evident that they too have a similar view: that failure can happen when we do something new and maybe don’t have the instructions or experience to do it to the best of our capabilities, or to the standards that are showered upon us. It’s something that with the support of others they can brush off and get past. 

The children I spoke to showed high levels of resilience, and an understanding that if we try something new or become innovative in our way of thinking or doing, sometimes things will not manifest to our desired outcome and thus we will fail in our mission. Unlike with adults, there’s no fear of what others will say, or how they will overcome this. Because in their world it’s a blip, not a mountain. They are able to put it into perspective of the bigger picture of their life.

It’s like an obstacle course. If you trip on an element you still continue. You do not quit because there is simply no need. When you try something big or new not everything goes to plan.

And that is OKAY.

However, there’s a point at which the actions, expectations and opinions of others start to cast a shadow over children in primary schools. That point is SATS.

The expectations of others around them start to shape their desires to do well and not fail. Stress starts to trickle in. This is something all the children wanted to do well at in the future: not just for themselves, but for others too. They start to live to the expectations of others rather than staying true to their own essence that is telling them that failure isn’t what adults say it is. An inner turmoil begins as young people try to work their way through life with a slightly different perspective. The preset conception of success has been activated, and along with it a desire to be acknowledged via success – instead of celebrating the fact that trying something new takes courage. We should all have the courage to try something new even if we don’t do well or ‘succeed’. Because each time we try something new we are opening up the doors to amazing new experiences and even change that could trigger a revolution.

‘A beast in the shadows’

Children thrive on unconditional support. Having a group of morale boosting cheerleaders that have unwavering belief in them regardless of the outcome of their actions is their rocket fuel. Knowing that regardless of the result it is no reflection of how amazing they are as a human being helps them have a resilient attitude towards failure. What happens as they grow older is success is measured more and more against systems that are constructed to pit each and every person against the next. Rarely seldom do any of these systems acknowledge that no two people are the same nor do two people naturally feel their success should be measured in the same way. Especially if the path has been a new one.

Failure is huge. No one wants to fail. No adult wants that embarrassment in their lives. No one has the desire to be laughed at. Humiliated. Looked down at. All due to failure. Failure: an unseen beast that lingers in the shadows of the majority of our adulthood. We do not see failure as a sign of us trying. In fact we see it as a sign we are bad at something. We do not reward ourselves for how far our aspirations have brought us. Or the level of our valiance that has brought us to our failure. We dwell on what may have been if we were successful. Not on what we have learnt or what we will move onto next.

‘We could change the narrative’

Being on planet earth for nearly four whole decades has taught me so much. As a young woman I had an arranged marriage that I couldn’t make work. Regardless of what I did, how I did, the marriage wasn’t moving forward in a positive productive direction. At 31 I had a heart attack and things changed. I became a single, unemployed, unhealthy mum of two children suffering from depression. I was a billboard for my community’s definition of what they called failure. I couldn’t make a marriage work. I couldn’t make one man happy. The benchmark of success was to remain married regardless of the internal or external struggles I had. I was an epic failure. Moving past this has been exhilarating.

Living to the expectations of others, and using failure as a benchmark of how good I am or how successful I am, prevented me from being genuine to myself. Just like it impacts many more. To hold onto how we perceive actions and results as children in adulthood would result in re-writing the definition of failure. We could change the narrative. No longer would failure be negative. It would be positive. It would symbolise the actions we take to potentially bring something new into the world. To redefine such a powerful word would be an epic achievement and the starting block is children. Holding onto their way of thinking. The way they process things. The way they bounce back. Because failure isn’t our definition nor does it reflect our true value. It shows that we are brave enough to venture out of our comfort zone. 

Imagine a world in which failure is defined, not as a lack, but as ‘trying something new, working towards something amazing, being brave and resilient and being open to amazingness’. I want to live in that world: will you join me?