Overcoming failure is as important as success
Coping with it, not striving to be perfect, is a true art
For those suckled on social media, being a perfectionist has become the norm, writes columnist Zoe Strimpel
I’ve never had an easy relationship with failure – who has?
When I was growing up, my parents, like many, wanted me to succeed.
Exams were important.
For my mother, my violin playing was even more important.
Having started at four, it was the vehicle through which I was to learn and embody the virtues of discipline, rigour and attention to detail.
Aged 14, however, I might have been struggling to achieve my goals with Debussy’s Violin Sonata, but at least I wasn’t inundated with photos and videos of my peers playing it perfectly.
Today, peppered 24/7 as we are with glossy, pixelated images of everyone else’s amazing life and achievements, it’s harder to keep any perspective; it often feels as though a gallery of images of how things should look are pressed on us all the time.
Sure, kids in my day (as at any time) could be perfectionists, but it wasn’t the norm.
It seems to have become so now, with those suckled on social media now in their teens and early 20s particularly acute sufferers.
At the extreme, we have examples of perfectionism killing some of our brightest young things; the tragic suicide last month of Team GB snowboarder Ellie Soutter on her 18th birthday after she missed a flight that would enable her to join the team for training, is a case in point.
New research has highlighted the degree to which perfectionism is now impinging on the well-being of students; a University of Bath study earlier this year, of 40,000 students in the UK, the US and Canada, found a 33% increase since 1989 in those who feel they must be perfect to gain approval.
Thomas Curran, the report’s author, diagnosed “a hidden epidemic of perfectionism” among today’s young.
Why? Curran, a typical academic, looked to the evils of capitalism to explain the rash of perfectionism, calling out a “marketised form of competition” that has “pushed young people to focus on their achievements”.
This sounds implausible to me: what exactly is new about a “marketised form of competition”?
Far more likely to explain the current state of affairs is the influence of our parents.
Fresh from the brave new world of the Sixties and Seventies or, in the case of younger millennials, in the Eighties, our parents wanted us to live our dreams.
Their parents had been conservative disciplinarians who said “no” rather than “yes” – they wanted to be different – so they told us we could do anything we set our hearts on, and that their happiness was bound up in our fulfilment and success.
Meanwhile, the internet radically expanded all our options: educational, professional, consumerist and creative.
The world really did appear to be our oyster, and we internalised that sense that we must have it all.
However, as young people have been finding out, being showered in options – actual ones, as well as promised ones – can make finding contentment with any one choice elusive. More becomes less.
As a society, we are growing more aware of the debilitating effects of poor mental health, and there has been a flourishing literature on the evils of and solutions to perfectionism.
Enter the new category of “failing well” how-tos, with books including those such as economist Tim Harford’s Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure and Anthony McGowan’s The Art of Failure.
Meanwhile, the writer Elizabeth Day – contemplating her life three years after a divorce, aged 36 – started a podcast called How to Fail, in which she asks extremely successful people about what failure has taught them.
Working hard, discipline and high standards are all good. But getting through failure intact is the true art. – The Sunday Telegraph