Why the secret to success is admitting your failures

Journalist Elizabeth Day. Picture: Fergal Phillips

It starts like this: you open your inbox and there’s an email from a woman called Elizabeth.

“Tell me three of what you consider to be your greatest failures,” she writes.

What you reply with will become the bones of a 40-minute interview, which the world will be able to hear.

If you agree to the challenge, what do you say are your failures? The time you missed the penalty kick in a school soccer final? 

Or that time in work when you were promoted after you stole a friend and colleague’s hard-earned thunder?

The first would lead you down a shallow path, discussing the loss of a would-be victorious sporting moment. 

The other down the road of discussing friendship, honesty, loyalty, betrayal, Machiavellian-ambition, and deceit.

Anyone can talk about missed kicks, but how comfortable would most people be admitting the shadier side of themselves to the world?

Yet, in leadership, both in politics and in the corporate world, the admission of failure is a rare, if not a nearly extinct, entity.

But isn’t a show of vulnerability the very act that allows a person to trust you?

This email sender, Elizabeth, is a real person. Her name is Elizabeth Day. 

She’s a British journalist who hosts a very popular podcast, How To Fail, asking well-known and highly successful people about their greatest failures. 

There are big-name politicians in there, and big-name actors and writers, too.

The formula of vulnerability and honesty has been such a refreshing hit that a book, by the same name, has just been published.

It gets you thinking, not just about your own failures, which you’ve shrouded in shame, hoping they’ll never see the public light of day, but the failures of our politicians and business leaders.

What kind of society would we live in if we had governments and ministers who said: “Dear citizens, we did try really hard with that new housing strategy — the money was there, the strategy was air-tight — but, look, the homeless figures have risen again. We are going back to the drawing board to get this right.”

Instead, we live in a world of spin, of the doctoring of figures and of the cooking of books, so that statistics can be interpreted positively, even though they’re anything but.

We exist in a world where public projects run over by millions and millions of euro, and instead of addressing the issue head on, there is this endless back-and-forth about the timing of meetings and the dissecting of email threads.

We live in a country where people will do anything to avoid their own head having to roll, despite litanies or decades of misdemeanours.

We’ve yet to establish who is financially liable for the proper redress of the women and girls who were incarcerated in our Magdalene laundries.

Nearly four decades on from the fatal Stardust nightclub fire, where 48 people died, there are still calls for a fresh inquest.

And this week, we’re right in the middle of the FAI fiasco. Despite the miles in column inches, the affair seems no closer to a resolution.

On an individual level, it can be very hard to admit failure, but, at a public level, it seems downright impossible.

But imagine for a second that humility was a national trait, and a necessary skill in the job description of every business leader and politician.

Instead of the media spending days on end chasing their own tail, what if a leader came out and said: “This is what happened and this is how we are going to fix it. We are sorry.”

Instead of the baying mob or the trigger-happy Twitter user always demanding a head, what if they let the person apologise, stay in their job, and find a solution?

We could have a solution-focused culture, rather than a shame-based one.

To this end, I think of a Wexford man called Tony O’Reilly, a postman who had a gambling addiction, which the entire country would find out about.

“On December 18, 2012, I was sentenced to four years in prison, with one suspended, for a crime I committed. 

"I stole €1.75m from An Post, and I used this money to fuel a gambling addiction that I had developed over a 10-year period,” he wrote last year.

This is not the kind of honesty we’ve grown used to, especially from someone who’s done time.

“I deserved to be sent to prison for what I did and, to be honest, I believe that I should have served a longer sentence. 

"Not just for the crimes of theft and false accounting, but for how my actions caused so many people to suffer,” he added.

Tony committed a crime, but he has also come out, hands up, and has written and talked publicly about his addiction and subsequent wrongdoing.

It’s important we don’t make pariahs of people, because, when we do, admission of failure and the necessary corrective action are hard to come by.

Elizabeth Day’s guest on her podcast this week is John Crace, The Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer.

This highly respected journalist’s failures include a decade-long heroin addiction, which he does not shy away from detailing with frank honesty.

He also talks about his life today, and how, on some mornings, it can take up to an hour to pry himself out from under the safety and comfort of his bed’s covers.

I tried to imagine a public person of his stature, on this side of the pond, telling us of such vulnerabilities.

If people seek to lead, be it in business or politics, in a crisis or towards an opportunity, then getting comfortable with failure, and public failure, at that, is a prerequisite.

There’s a bit of power in bravado, but there’s far more power in vulnerability.

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