Redefining Failure

Every Monday, we come together as a College, and we celebrate success: certificates are awarded, congratulations are given, the Team of the Week is announced. This week, however, we have focused not on success, but on its unmentionable opposite: failure. Failure, especially in the context of school, is something of a taboo word. Elsewhere, we find amusement in the concept: the ‘Fail Army’ trends on social media, the phrase ‘epic fail’ has entered the common lexicon, but most of us would rather not admit to failure when it happens to us. This week, however, our perception of what it means to fail was challenged on two separate occasions.

The first came in assembly on Monday, with an address on ‘The Science of Learning from Failure’, written and delivered brilliantly by Orla Vincent (L6, Ap) and Sebastian Carroll (L6, R). In a presentation that delved into neuroscience and drew lessons from Matthew Syed’s ‘Black Box Thinking’, Orla and Sebastian explored how a culture of openness and honest reflection invariably leads to progress. By accepting our mistakes, by analysing what went wrong, we can learn, and we can learn quickly.

The second challenge to failure came on Wednesday. This time, it was Ben Fogle – the adventurer, presenter, and writer (or, as he described himself, ‘professional have-a-goer’) who encouraged us not only to accept failure, but to completely redefine it.

At the age of 18, Ben Fogle was, by his own admission, a ‘failure’. He had failed his driving test seven times; he had failed his A Levels; he had even managed an ‘N’ grade in Geography – something which, today, would surely be classed as an ‘epic fail’. As Ben pointed out, when measured against middle-class norms, when compared to those who took the conventional route, things were not looking good. In his own words, Ben’s exam results alone had ‘consigned’ him to a ‘life of failure’.

But, as he ably demonstrated on Wednesday night, Ben Fogle did not fail; he simply followed a different path. During his presentation, Ben described his route through life as ‘unconventional’ and ‘meandering’: gap years, TV shows, and a career that has led him to the farthest corners of the world. He has conquered Antarctica, rowed the Atlantic, trekked across the desert and, most recently, triumphed in the ultimate challenge: Everest. During the Q & A session in the Lodge before his presentation, Ben Fogle told students that the ‘greatest wealth you can accumulate in life is experience’, something he demonstrated unequivocally through the richness of his stories.

Ben’s message was a powerful one: find your own path in life, however ‘unconventional’ and ‘meandering’ it may seem. By doing that – this well-travelled ‘story-teller’ persuaded us – you can write your own story. While we can’t control our beginning, life gives us an opportunity to craft ourselves a middle and an end.

And, if we can shape our own narrative, it follows then that we can choose how to manage those two impostors, triumph and defeat; we can choose how to define success and failure.

The message was summed up perfectly with the story of fellow Everest-climber, Victoria Pendleton. Victoria, like Ben, had trained for two years in pursuit of her dream. But, part way through their ascent, extreme altitude sickness meant that she had to abandon her mission. Was this failure? No. Not, according to Ben Fogle:

‘It wasn’t failure; it was just a different ending.’


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