I’m 46 years old.
I’ve had five failed businesses, three failed careers, one failed uni degree, and a failed marriage. I had diarrhea in first grade and pooed my pants in front of the whole school in assembly. Anyone else…? No, just me then.
I’d like to talk to you a little bit about failure.
Not in the way that most people have talked to me about failure. I don’t know… I’ve heard a lot of amazing people talk about failure as this kind of glorious and aspirational rite of passage, to be embraced and celebrated by entrepreneurs and artists alike.
Now I’m not sure how these particular people are doing their particular failing, but my experience is a little different. I think failing sucks. It’s brutal. I’ve felt shame, worthlessness, fear. Failing hasn’t been particularly aspirational for me, and I’m trying like hell not to keep failing as I move through life.
So I’m not going to talk to you about how awesome it is to fail, how you’ve just got to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and have another crack, forged and all the wiser from your adversity.
Instead I’d like to share with you a story.
A story that led to a bit of an epiphany for me, which I will also share — an epiphany (and I don’t use the word lightly — it wasn’t just a thought, and it was life-changing, for me at least) — an epiphany that led to an interesting and kind of fatalistic perspective on failure, in the context of life more wholly, I guess.
With the unexpected bonus of maybe stumbling upon the key to happiness.
Which is a big call, and I may well be setting myself up to fail, once again.
Another key to happiness, I’ve heard is keeping your expectations low, so I perhaps should revise my introduction.
I’d like to share a story that you will probably think is a load of shit and you may well never get back the next ten minutes of your life. I’m sorry about that.
About ten years ago, my then father-in-law Rod turned fifty. We had a big party for him at my then wife’s and my house. Rod got up, made a great speech, in which he presented his kids — Jodie my wife, and Justin my brother-in-law and the co-founder in my wine business, which hasn’t failed (yet) — he presented them each with a vase. The vases were filled with stones, the kind of stones you find on the beach, and he said something like this…
“Fifty days ago I woke up and I went for a walk along the beach, and I started thinking back on my life. As I walked, I picked up a stone and started rubbing it, thought of you, Jodie. And a little further along I picked up another stone and I started rubbing it, and I thought about you, Justin, and I thought back to the first year of my life.
“Where I was born, the house we lived in, thought about Mum and Dad, their friends, my room… it was a nice thing. I went back home and put the two stones on the counter. And the next day I got up again and went for another walk, picked up another couple of stones, started rubbing them, and thought about the next year of my life.
“And then the next morning I did the same, and the one after that, and the one after that — every morning I got up and thought about another year of my life. Pretty soon I’m thinking about school, then high school, friends, crushes, girlfriends, football, life in my twenties, jobs I had, houses we lived in, marriage, you kids…
“Every morning for fifty days I’ve gone for a walk, picked up a couple of stones, and thought about my life, year after year, right up to today, my fiftieth birthday. And it was amazing all the memories that came back to me, things I didn’t even realise I remembers, hadn’t thought about for years.
“And these stones — fifty stones, fifty years — well, in these stones I’ve rubbed all those memories, and I wanted to give them to you.”
Now everyone thought it was a great speech, and we all clapped and a few people cried. I was profoundly moved by it. What an amazing thing to have done.
So for my fortieth birthday a few years later, I did the same thing. Well — I didn’t live near the beach, so I didn’t walk and pick up stones, but I started writing. Forty days before my birthday. Every day a different year, from the year I was born, through childhood, high school, twenties, thirties — anything I could remember. I’d look at photos, I rang my mum and dad, and asked them questions.
Sometimes I wrote down facts, like where we’d lived, songs I remembered, what car I drove, and sometimes I wrote down feelings, sometimes stories. I wrote about people I’d loved, people I hadn’t loved, moments, thoughts, fears, regrets… day by day, I revisited my whole life, and captured it all in a few hundred pages.
And I, too, was amazed at how much came back to me, and I know this will sound a bit Gerry Maguire, but on the day of my fortieth birthday, I can honestly say I felt more complete than I’d ever felt. All the thoughts, fears, loves, desires, shame, failures… they were all me, had all made me the person I was.
That was the good part.
The bad part, the thing that really concerned me, was that many of those memories, particularly from my twenties and thirties, that age when you start trying to make something of yourself, build a life, a career…
Most of those memories, barring the really big ones, like my wedding day, and the birth of my kids — most of the memories felt like they were like they were part of someone else’s story. Or like I was watching them through a hazy filter. They were detached, I couldn’t really connect with them.
And I struggled with that for quite a while, trying to figure out why, and that’s when it hit me.
I had a realisation that was for me something quite profound, something of an epiphany, which I’ll share with you now…
Helps to visualise this, I think:
Life starts here, right, when you’re born. Bear with me, I’m starting simple.
And we move through life, and at some point, it’s going to end over here, when you die.
And that’s your path, right? That’s your life.
But what tends to happen of course, and this certainly was happening to me, is that life zig zags, something happens — you drop out of uni, start a business with your alcoholic father, that fails, you suck at acting, you don’t get the record deal, your theatre company fails, your covers band fails, you lose your house, whoops — didn’t think I’d ever end up in Adelaide… video production company fails, facebook for wine fails…
And you end up on a different path to what you imagined, or what you wanted. And this was the real epiphany for me — so you find yourself on this path, wishing you were on that path.
That’s the life you want.
Or even if you are on a path that you want to be on, if you’re anything like me, you’re always looking ahead — setting goals, targets, planning…
We spend so much time measuring our life in this distance we are away from something.
That was the reason all my memories were so detached — I’d spent most of my adult life focused so much on where I wanted to be, I was never actually where I was. I hadn’t really been present.
And it occurred to me, and this was the depressingly humbling bit — that at this point, when you die, your life will have been whatever it was. Not the path you planned — The other line? It’s nothing. It’s gone. Nobody but you gives a shit about that.
This will have been your life — WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT.
And that’s the bit that I think it really important. Every day. That’s your life. Your actual life.
And as someone who had tried and failed at a lot of things, it really hit me then that the only real failure would be to get to the end, to die having spent so much time focused on that other path, or what lay ahead, that you didn’t really value the life you actually lived.
I honestly think that’s at the root of most peoples’ unhappiness. And who can blame us?
There’s so much pressure to follow your dreams, live every day like it’s your last, squeeze every drop of blood from the stone that is this life we get — it’s no wonder we’re not happy with where we’re at on any given day. There’s too much pressure!
But in the end, does that really matter? I mean it does, actually, but here’s the thing that is hard to cop: It’s your life, no matter what happens. The good, the bad, the successes, the failures… the failures…
In the end, they’re all the experiences that were your life. Like it or not.
I think the key to happiness lies not in success but in accepting and embracing the life you have.
Failure hurts. I failed my marriage. I failed 5 businesses and 3 careers. Perspective — that’s the salvation. Literally — on your death bed, looking back on your life.
I think if you can get your head around that, it brings with it a perspective that makes it much, much easier to accept the situations you find yourself in, no matter how devastating.
Not “it’s okay, this is cool”, but “this is my life, like it or not. Might as well be grateful.”
I struggle with gratitude. Don’t know why. I think it’s one of those words that has been ruined for me. So I prefer “might as well choose to be okay with it all.”
I’m not saying you shouldn’t dream, you shouldn’t have goals, and work towards them.
I’m saying that those dreams, those goals — they’re not your life. They’re like the map on a road trip. They’re not the trip. The trip is your life. Don’t spend the whole trip looking at the map. And certainly don’t be too focused on the destination, that being death, on this particular trip.
So that’s the epiphany I had, and I let go of that path, and got back to here, right here. This moment, fully present.
I vowed then and there, on that day, that I would never again let an era of my life go by without really acknowledging it. Without being present. Hell — an era? I wouldn’t let a day go by.
I taught myself to stop, and breathe, and look at my surroundings, and listen, and smell — smelling was a powerful sense to get me in the moment. If I was working on a task, I would focus more fully on that task. If I was with my kids, or my wife, I would be totally there with them.
And that was living.
From that moment, from my fortieth birthday, I made peace with my failures.
And a lot of my stress, a lot of my fears, my anxiety — just evaporated. Acknowledging that no matter what my plans were, no matter what I was working towards, what scary pressures or risks lay around the corner, it was this day, today — this moment — this was my life, and I had a choice in each moment how I would feel, and act.
And all this weight just lifted. I could breathe. Ahhhh…
I will fail again. Many times. At business, at being a good person… because I’ll keep trying to do good things.
And that will be my life.