Failure is just a dirty word for learning


As small people we learn to walk, talk and generally make sense of the world around us. It seems unlikely that we assessed our efforts in terms of success or failure. We didn’t think, we just ‘did’; rolling over, the first steps.. the first words… and all the parental cheering just made us want to achieve more and more.

1993 Karl föds041Sometimes we get hooked on such praise as it can be a great motivator. And vaguely we may remember the feeling of ‘I did it’ and the rush of adrenaline that pushed us on despite the pain; up on the feet, boom, down on the bum, au, and up on the feet again. Wobble, wobble as we set out to conquer the world. And yes – that is exactly how it feels to be an expat sometimes.

As expats we just can’t fail to get things wrong.

When I used to live in Sweden I mixed up the word for lesbians with the word for braids. And all internationals have experience of putting their foot into local customs that either encourage or discourage things like spitting, farting, winking, shoes on or off, and the voicing of political opinions. Most of us learn these things through the embarrassment of getting it wrong in order to get it right. But now, it feels, no one is cheering us on anymore. Instead we feel as if all eyes are on us to make a success of things; from the home front to new employers and even our fellow expats.

It is my experience as an Expat coach that most internationals feel very lonely in their hit and miss process of acculturation. Especially if you’re with someone from the culture that is now your home who thinks everything is ‘normal’ in their country. No one seems to notice how hard this all is and how much a pat on the shoulder would make you want to try, and try and try again. Far from praising ourselves for the effort, we seem to assume that now that we are adults we’re not supposed to be falling down on our bums and up again. The monthly discussion groups I run from my houseboat in Holland are a great forum for sharing the ups and downs and getting a bit of a cheer from others running the same marathon of international life.

Failure can be your gift!

The ease with which we used trial and error as our natural guide to learning about life, is often lost as we reach adulthood. As a particularly accident prone child, or daredevil, depending on who you asked, I thankfully had a wise mother who helped me to make friends with a learning style that involves getting it wrong before I get it right. And still I sometimes feel socially conditioned to get everything right first time round. Each new country move is therefore an opportunity to practice my mantra; ‘just try it, what’s the worst that can happen?’ Be it finding a hairdresser, the nicest place for coffee in the morning, or schools for the children and a local church. If it doesn’t feel right you can try something else. I thank my mother for her insight that the only way I learned was through trial and error, by trying things out for myself and not taking other people’s word for it.

So I can imagine it is so much harder for people who, beyond the cheering phase of toddlerhood, grew up with a great sense of guilt and shame around so-called ‘mistakes’ conditioned by parents or teachers who themselves carried an unhealthy relationship with their inner perfectionist and critic.

There is a direct link between being an adventurer and not being afraid, or not too afraid at least, to make mistakes. You might see us as the ‘Crash Test Dummies’ (or Smarties) of the international world. And your enhanced knowledge can inform and inspire others. It can be a gift. I really do believe that some of us are particularly ‘engineered’ to learn like this. So take heart, you can learn to enjoy the process instead of beating yourself up about it.

After all, failure is just a nasty word for learning! … It’s your attitude that makes it bad, not the experience itself.

Does control protect you from failure?

If you’ve been hurt at some point in this natural ‘hit and miss’ process, something everyone experiences, then you may become afraid and feel failure is to be avoided at all costs. Control becomes your favorite helpmate. And when, despite every form of control exercised, failure does come knocking, it debilitates and has to be hidden from view, like a shameful little secret. But where would you be today if, back then, as you were learning to walk and talk, you’d given up at the first hurdle, berating yourself and loading the dice of success with self-criticism and perfectionism? Do you hear your inner toddler saying, “oh dear, must learn to put left foot down before I lift right foot… what an idiot I am!” Of course not. These are the words of the adults around us, of society. If it were true that making mistakes is bad, then I think we’d all still be swimming around like amoebas in the sea.

Trying to control life to avoid failure is like stubbornly remaining on your nappy padded bottom pretending you’re too good to join the walking wounded. We will meet failure time and time again. We can embrace it as a natural process of learning or we can beat ourselves up about it. Like a client of mine said; “just because I did something wrong, doesn’t mean I am wrong.’

Think of the tightrope walker who swings from left to right as she finds her balance. No one thinks she’s doing something wrong by not walking in a straight line….. Wobbling means you are out of your comfort zone learning something new! And moving country is one hell of a swing out of your comfort zone. So if you, as an expat, have an issue with failure, then you might be hurting much more than you need to. A positive attitude towards failure, a kind attitude towards yourself, towards this natural process of learning is what will see you through; if not this, then that…

Eventually we learn; failure is painful, but I am still okay.

The strongest place to be is where we experience ourselves as ‘imperfectly perfect, or perfectly imperfect. Or, as one good friend often says; “amazingly fallible.” So think back to your first steps the next time you put your adult foot into some intercultural mess. Remember the time before you judged your small steps forward in life through the lens of success or failure.

Be as free in your trial and error exploration of the world as you were then. Fall down, lovingly pick yourself up, have a cheer, have a tumble, and above else, have a giggle at yourself and give yourself a break. Meet yourself with empathic care as you reassure yourself that this was just one more step on the path to deeper wisdom.

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