If you're not failing, then you're not learning

I was recently approached by Always to be part of the Irish team for their #LikeAGirl campaign, writes Louise O’Neill

If you're not failing, then you're not learning

It’s an initiative that I have watched with interest since its launch in 2014 because as a writer, I am someone who really believes in the power of language. Words matter. And when words are used, unconsciously or otherwise, to diminish an entire faction of society, the effects can be alarming.

‘Don’t be such a girl.’ ‘You’re like an old woman with all that gossiping.’ ‘Don’t be such a pussy.’

These phrases are commonplace in our society and each time they are used, they reinforce the idea that women are somehow inferior. Young girls are listening to you when you talk like this.

They are internalising your implicit suggestion that they are less important than boys. Is it any surprise that studies show girls’ confidence plummets at puberty?

For their 2017 campaign, Always decided to focus on the fear of failure that affects many young women.

Their research found that 89% of girls believed that if failure was seen as ‘okay’, they would feel more confident in continuing to try new things, take on fresh challenges, and ultimately, grow in confidence. And while fear of failure is not unique to women, it does seem to affect us at disproportionally higher rates.

Too many women feel burdened by the need to be perfect – the perfect wife/girlfriend, the perfect mother, the perfect employee, the perfect student, the perfect friend, colleague etc.

The notion of ‘having it all’ has led many women to seek perfection in every aspect of their lives.

When was the last time anyone asked a man if they felt they could ‘have it all’? When was the last time men were asked if they had to make sacrifices in their career to have a family or vice versa?

While young men are often indulged – boys will be boys, after all – young women are told they must be better.

They are told that they need to be twice as good as men if they want to succeed. (One study that evaluated postdoctoral fellowship applications in biomedical science discovered that the female applicants had to be 2.5 times more productive than the men in order to be rated equally scientifically competent.)

The Confidence Code, a 2014 bestseller by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman, explored this idea of perfection, saying that it kept women “from action. We don’t answer questions until we are totally sure of the answer... We watch our male colleagues lean in, while we hold back until we believe we’re perfectly ready and perfectly qualified.”

They interviewed Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, who, despite all of her incredible success, admitted to having Imposter Syndrome. (Described as “A concept where individuals are unable to internalise their accomplishments and have a persistent fear of being exposed as a ‘fraud’”.)

They talked to Angela Merkel, and Christine Lagarde, MD of the International Monetary Fund, both of whom said they over-prepare for every meeting they attend because of their fear of being ‘caught out’ and their bemusement at how under-prepared their male colleagues seemed in comparison.

The book also features Mike Thibault, a former NBA recruiter, who spoke about the differences between the male and female athletes he’s coached; ultimately, when women experience failure, they are more likely to let it affect them.

“The best male players I’ve coached,” Thibault said, “whether it’s Michael Jordan or people like that... they have an ability to get restarted quickly. They don’t let setbacks linger as long. And women can... they are afraid to get it wrong.”

This fear of ‘getting it wrong’ is something that I can easily empathise with. I wanted to write a book for many years but never felt able to even begin; my fear of failure so cripplingly that it paralysed me.

I would sit down to a blank word document and I would think – what if I try and it’s terrible? What if I try and it turns out I don’t have any talent?

What if I try and the book is rejected? The idea of failure on such a monumental scale seemed devastating to me, and because of that, it felt safer to forget about my dream of writing and focus on other ambitions, ones that seemed easier to achieve.

It was only when, at the age of 26, I found myself in a state of ‘failure’ despite my best efforts – unemployed, my relationship had broken up, I had to move back in with my parents with €50 in my bank account – I decided that it was better to fail than live a life full of regrets.

After that the words started to flow onto the page. And my life changed forever.

Our culture is afraid of failure but really, it’s not so much failure that we are terrified of. In truth, we are secretly afraid that we are not good enough.

This fear is at the root of the human condition – the sneaking suspicion that we are inherently flawed and un-loveable because we don’t measure up to some ideal of perfection. We are not attractive enough, we are not smart enough, we are not rich enough, we are not successful enough, we are simply not enough.

And it’s not true.

Despite what traditional religions would have us believe, being ashamed of that which makes us human is not and should not be our natural state of being.

We are all good enough, just as we are today. We don’t have to be ‘perfect’, whatever that might be, to be worthy of love. We need to reject this fear of failure, and to encourage our young people – particularly young girls – to reject it as well.

There is no reason that they should feel shame if they don’t enjoy instant success.

If we re-framed failure, encouraged young people to see it as a valuable learning experience and something that they can use to build confidence in their own abilities, what could they accomplish in the future?

I would love to tell every young person who is reading this article to remember that if you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not living a bold enough life. If you’re not failing, then you’re not learning.

So, try your best. Fail greatly. Learn from it. Try again. Keep going. Keep going. Keep going.

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