A fresh look at failure

Clare Bostock is a Geriatrician in Aberdeen.

I can feel an approaching pandemic in use of the word failure. It started with failure to plan, failure to supply PPE and economic failure. There is talk of failure to support frail older people and other vulnerable groups. For me, the worst part is coming home from work feeling that I have failed to provide the quality of care to older people with frailty, that I used to provide prior to Covid. Now is the time to take a fresh look at failure.

I have been reflecting on failure for over twenty years, ever since I was asked at a medical school interview if I had ever failed anything. I was strangely relieved that I could answer affirmatively: I had failed my grade three piano exam. It's not exactly the gritty response that might secure me a place at medical school today, but the piano wasn't important. What was important is that I had gone on to pass that exam, and another, and another.

Our colleagues are more likely to suffer perfectionism than failure. I have supported trainees who have been devastated to fail an exam for the first time in their lives. We need to remind people that failure is about building experience and that it's okay to be average.

The irony is not lost on author and journalist Elizabeth Day, whose most successful work is her book and podcast 'How to Fail'. Listening to her radio interview I learned three important things about failure:

Firstly, just because you fail something it doesn't mean that you are a failure.

Secondly, when we fail, we can choose to learn something from it. Failure is a time of "data acquisition". We have seen this in academia with a drive to publish 'negative' trial findings.

Thirdly, give your consciousness a name and reprimand it when negative thoughts surface.  I can say, "Shut up, Brian! I know I didn't get this right last time, but I have a better idea now and it's going to work!"

We should set ourselves up to succeed. I enjoyed a BMJ podcast that suggested we stop making resolutions. Resolutions often focus on unrealistic goals to eat less or exercise more - perfect for failure. Instead, let's make a resolution to be joyfully average, especially in a profession that demands more and more.

Times ahead will be challenging and to quote Day, we need to be "honest about our vulnerabilities." But if we can each embrace being joyfully average, then I know that together we can be a phenomenally successful team.  


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