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“Failure is a normal and healthy part of life”: Lucy Mangan on learning from experience


Why, why would you ever acknowledge failure? Willingly, I mean. Not just that jabbering little voice inside your head that is constantly giving you a full run- down of your (recent/historical, personal/professional) f***-ups as you attempt to get through the day without making too many more.

A Princeton professor, Johannes Haushofer, recently compiled and tweeted a ‘CV of failures’ in order, he says, to remind everyone that failure is a hidden but normal and healthy part of everyone’s life.

So, obviously, I’ve done my own. Not, alas, as a result of instincts as noble as the prof’s – more born out of the same morbid fascination that compels us to look at car crashes and peer over cliff edges. But maybe results can be helpful regardless of intention.

Lucy Mangan

Thus, I give you the edited low-lights of the Mangan Catastrophe Vitae:

1. Law exams. Specifically, my land law exams. I think I got 7%. One of the examiners came up to me afterwards and asked if I’d ever seen any land. That was cruel.

2. Trying and failing to have sex with [name redacted] several times in 1998 and then again in 1999. “It’s like I don’t have a vagina,” my diary records. “Where has it gone?”

3. Rejection letters from various newspaper work experience programmes.

4. Eight billion articles pitched and rejected by magazines.

5. Publishing job at a boutique firm that bounced me out of the door before I started my interview.

6. Bad mothering: 2011 to present.

7. Bad eating: leaving home, aged 18, to present.

8. Not living in New York for several years during my 20s.

9. Or 30s.

10. Or now.

The simple act of writing them down is cathartic, but analysing them is oddly liberating too. Take 1, for example. That devastated me at the time. I’d never failed at anything academic before. But now I can look at it and say, “Land law is based on a thousand-year-old load of Norman nonsense. Even the Normans didn’t understand it, I bet,” and it’s fine. I don’t have to know everything. I’ve survived not knowing about land law. This suggests to me that I will survive other seeming catastrophes, too.

Regarding number 2, I can only say that I cleave to this one as certain proof that some failures are simply not your fault. Some failures are down to some things being the size of a baseball bat and being wielded in the vicinity of your nethers with about as much finesse. I would like to apologise to my vagina now, for ever blaming you and your sound self-protective strategies.

From 3 and 4 – I learned. I learned to write better covering letters, do more research, pitch more succinctly. I also learned, years later, that at least one of the people I sent a letter to only hired people whose fathers he had heard of. And the owner of the little publishing firm only took on coltish brunettes. What appears to be your failure is often someone else’s.

Articles 6-10 are what I’ll term ‘proper’ failures – they’re down to me. My sloth, my cowardice, mainly, plus trace elements of other inadequacies too lengthy to list here, which I should, and occasionally do, work on.

So. A 50% moral failure rate. 30% exoneration. 100% educational. Maybe our jabbering inner voices should give us all a break. After all, I’d almost go so far as to call that a success.

Photography: Ellis Parrinder, iStock


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