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Why failure is good for you

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When you’re at your lowest depths, it’s hard to believe that you’re often living the most positive experience of your life. Not convinced? Megan McArdle argues why bad so often turns out to be good…

You can learn a lot from a really bad break-up.

You can, for example, learn that America’s Yellowstone National Park is not just a park, but also the caldera of a supervolcano so vast that its eruption could render America’s midwest area uninhabitable for a decade. And that an asteroid may not have killed off the dinosaurs after all.

That’s just a sampling of the fascinating facts I learned in 2003 after my boyfriend of many years told me he was ready to get married… and then, four days later, told me he’d made a hideous mistake and I should move out. It was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

He got most of our friends in the break-up (my old friends having mostly drifted to the suburbs, and motherhood, and the enchantments of dinner party debates over competing brands of wet wipes). And so for months I watched television with a ferocious dedication, trying to drown out the inner monologue that relentlessly pointed out how stupidly I’d wasted my last good dating years on a man who didn’t want me, how hard it would be to find another compatible man at the advanced age of 34, and how dismally my future would progress through a series of small and dreary flats filled with cats and half-drunk glasses of Chablis.

Of course, I couldn’t watch any shows where people were happy like The Gilmore Girls because that made me sad. And I couldn't watch any shows where people were sad like Law And Order because that made me positively tragic. So I watched science programmes. Asteroids, supervolcanoes, the fantastic variety of lemur species – I’m now an expert on them all.

Ah, you want to know, but did I learn anything useful? So glad you asked. In fact, I did. I learned that the worst thing that ever happened to you can also, eventually, be the best thing that ever happened to you – if you manage things in the right way. Catastrophic failures – personal, professional, or national – are nature’s way of telling you to stop doing something that obviously isn’t working very well. That’s why they hurt so much; if it didn’t hurt, we wouldn’t stop.

In 2012, I did an online survey of what people considered “the best thing that ever happened to me”. It was a question I continued asking during the two years I spent writing a book about how to fail better. Many of the answers were what you’d expect: spouses met, babies born. But an astonishingly high percentage sounded more like the liner notes on a blues album: “Bankruptcy.” “Getting divorced.” “Going to jail.” “Losing my job.” Why? Because it forced those people out of something that wasn’t working and cleared the way for something better.

My break-up was nature’s way of prising my white-knuckled grip off of a relationship that was years past its sell-by date. Don’t get me wrong – he was, and is, a lovely man, and there was nothing obviously wrong with our relationship. At the same time, there was something obviously not quite right, starting with the fact that he was clearly reluctant to commit.

Why did I waste so many years clinging like a deranged barnacle to a man who was obviously ambivalent about marrying me? For the same reason we all cling to dispiriting jobs, toxic friendships and all manner of other supposedly good things that aren’t really: because we’re afraid that if we let go, we’ll have nothing at all. I didn’t press the matter with my boyfriend because I was afraid that if I delivered an ultimatum, he would leave. It turned out that there was something even worse than delivering an ultimatum and being dumped: not delivering an ultimatum, and then being dumped anyway, after I’d invested more precious years in a man who didn’t want to spend his life with me.

Failure forces us to acknowledge the truth, to let go of the lacklustre past. And once we’ve done so – once we no longer have something, no matter how inadequate, to lose – we’re free to take a flyer on something great. We’re even desperate enough to do it.

I once asked a turnaround specialist [an expert shipped in to rescue companies in financial distress] whether he wished firms would call him well before they were about to miss payroll, or default on their debt. What he said surprised me. While of course it’s hard to fix things when the firm is in the middle of a cash-flow crisis, he didn’t think that calling him in much earlier would help. Without the crisis, he didn’t think the firms could have mustered the courage to actually change what they were doing. It took the slap in the face to show them that they really couldn’t carry on as they were.

Be honest

The first desperate measure I tried after I crawled away from the television set for a few hours was to tell people exactly what had happened. You may have noticed that 98% of the people who tell you they have just been through a break-up are the people who say they initiated the split. This cannot possibly be true and, indeed, it doesn’t even sound true. But we play along because, well, are you really going to compound the pain of a break-up by calling them a liar?

But something in me rebelled against pretending that it had all been my idea. I decided I would tell everyone what had actually happened, even the excruciating details if they asked. It was the best possible decision I could have made. Instead of people half-heartedly comforting me over the imaginary pain of dumping my boyfriend, I received an outpouring of support, often from people I barely knew. They invited me to parties, bought me drinks, offered advice – much of it genuinely useful. Many of them told me their own stories of horrendous rejection, bone-crushing loneliness – and, often, how they had met the right person shortly after. I’m not sure it gave me hope at the time, but it at least suggested that hope might be a possibility someday.

Not one of them said what that little voice in my head was constantly whispering: “Wow, you must be a real loser.” Instead, they said, simply, “Yeah, me too.” As it happens, corporate turnaround experts will tell you that honestly confronting the past is a necessary prerequisite for making things better. That’s why the first thing you have to do in any 12-step programme is “admit you have a problem”.

Moving on

The second desperate measure I tried was moving on – literally. After months of back and forth about whether we should get back together, which ended in yet another brutal denouement, I moved from New York to Washington DC, temporarily, to get away from it all. Surrounded by a whole new set of people, things didn’t seem quite so dark. The Atlantic magazine offered to pay me to move my [economics, finance and governmental policy] blog to their website and do it full time and, after what seemed an eternity of dithering, I accepted. A few months after I completed my permanent move to Washington, I met the man who is now my husband.

This, too, is consistent with the soundest expert advice. People – and companies – who are willing to break with the past and strike out for new territory have a much better shot at success. That doesn’t always mean a physical move, though countries with higher labour mobility rates do tend to have less unemployment. But if you stay in your comfortable old rut… well, there’s a reason they say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result.

The third, and perhaps most important, desperate measure was risking early failure in order to avoid a later, more devastating one. A few months after my new boyfriend, Peter, and I moved in together, we were having a glass of wine in the back garden, when I realised I had to tell him something. “If we’re still together in a few years,” I said, “I’m going to want to get married. No hard feelings if you don’t, but I’m not staying indefinitely in a relationship that isn’t totally committed.”

He says I gave him an ultimatum. I thought of myself as just saying the things at 35 I’d been too afraid to say at 31. I knew I would be an awful mess if he packed up and moved out, especially since I’d already decided I wouldn’t mind spending the rest of my life with him, but I knew I’d be an even bigger mess if he did it four years hence.

A few months after that conversation, my husband proposed. Was it because I gave him an ultimatum? Not exactly, though I am a big believer in the ultimatum for people in their 30s: after a couple of years, you have learned everything you need to make a decision, and waiting around only makes it harder to leave and find someone you have a shot at spending your life with.

Rather, I’d say we got married because I met the right man – and the reason I met the right man was that I’d become the kind of person who no longer waited patiently to see if the universe would deliver what I expected. It’s a pity that the best way to learn that lesson is also the worst possible way. On the other hand, it’s infinitely better than the alternative.

The Up Side Of Down: Bouncing Back In Business And Life by Megan McArdle is out now (£15, Head of Zeus)

We want to know YOUR stories of failure. Have you picked yourself up and found unexpected success in the wake of failure? What has failing taught you? Tell us your experiences by sending an email to stories@stylist.co.uk

Success That Started With Failure

  • Oprah Winfrey

In 1976, aged 22, the “queen of daytime” was told she was “unfit for TV”. Her network put her out to pasture on a waning chat show where, against all odds, she excelled. In 1986 The Oprah Winfrey Show began, ran for 25 years and North America’s only black billionaire now runs her own network, OWN.

  • Vera Wang

Wang had spent 15 years slogging her way up the ladder at Vogue only to be passed over for promotion for the editor-in-chief position. She left in 1987, joined Ralph Lauren as a designer and in 1989, while planning her own wedding, decided there was a demand for wedding gowns beyond sequins and puffy sleeves. Her fashion and lifestyle business now has an estimated retail value of over $1bn.

  • Anna Wintour

"I recommend you all get fired. It’s a great learning experience." So Anna Wintour told a fashion conference in 2010. The US Vogue editor was sacked from Harper’s Bazaar for pairing couture with dreadlocks in a 1975 shoot. The journalist was told she’d never understand the American market. She’s been editor-in-chief since 1988.

  • JK Rowling

The writer was battling depression and suicidal thoughts in her 20s as she struggled to earn a living for herself and her infant daughter. In 1995, aged 30, she managed to complete her manuscript about a boy wizard, but still had 12 rejections from publishers. Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone had an initial run of 1,000 in 1997. Her books are now estimated to have sold over 450m copies.

  • Jeanne Moreau

The french ‘Nouvelle vague’ actress was told at 21 by a casting director that she wasn’t beautiful or photogenic enough to work in film. She responded to that particular blow by starring in over 100 films (including the genre-defining Jules et Jim) and winning more than 20 awards over a 67-year career. Orson Welles called her “the greatest actress in the world”.

Photos: Rosie Hardy

We want to know YOUR stories of failure. Have you picked yourself up and found unexpected success in the wake of failure? What has failing taught you? Tell us your experiences by sending an email to stories@stylist.co.uk

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