I have spent the morning in my local hospital going through pre-op assessments for my gallbladder surgery next week. I am nervous and excited and relieved and have that vague niggling worry that perhaps I’ll somehow not make it through the procedure and this will be my final week alive. Anxiety is so dramatic!
But I’m in good spirits, yesterday a friend kindly helped me move my things from the wonderful office at SHINE SA to my studio. I’ve been planning this since I moved into my bigger studio space, but needed moral support and assistance and every time I made arrangements something tricky happened at the last minute. Well, not this time! We packed up a whole lift full of art and project files and filled up a desk at the studio to be sorted through later.
There were two major challenges to work through, the first is that I have mixed feelings about the move. It’s absolutely the best next step, having everything in one space will streamline my work processes and make life much easier. But I love the folks at SHINE and will miss them, and my failure story is easy to trigger with anything I’d hoped to do but couldn’t bring to fruition, like some of my business plans during the residency that took a back seat when I was needed at home.
Our second moving challenge became apparent once we finished unpacking everything into my studio. No keys. They were on the bench in the lift, which is collapsible and was bumped at one point. Meaning they dropped unnoticed into a bag or box. We eventually found them in the back of a magazine folder full of hand made book making instructions!
I alternated between packing and crying, which I didn’t particularly want to inflict on the lovely staff, hence the perfect timing of a public holiday. Fortunately my helper was an art therapist who was excellent at distracting me whenever I started to fall down the failure well!
If you’ve come through childhood adversity you probably have a failure story too, created from all the bad memories, dreams you couldn’t reach, times you let yourself down or were failed by others. Most people who’ve been mistreated or abused, especially by someone they cared about or looked up to, have strong failure stories about not being able to find a way to stop it. Unemployment, especially long term, can deeply grove a sense of social rejection, exclusion, worthlessness, and failure. Gifted people who struggle to feel they’ve lived up their potential, people who had plans derailed by illness, or who found disability or mental health struggles meant no one saw potential in them often have strong failure stories too.
My failure story is incredibly strong and like most people’s, very painful. For me it’s particularly around work, fueled by misplaced shame for needing welfare and years of being forced to apply for unsuitable jobs. It’s taken a very long time for me to understand my failure story means I need to mindful of certain emotional risks I might want to take, to gather support around me in some settings. And that it in no way speaks to my competence, capacity, or worth. It makes certain things very hard for me and fuels high anxiety and overwhelm in some situations, but in many others it’s a minor background noise, aquiescent as a sleeping cat.
Most of us have a failure story of some kind, but in work and business we are strongly encouraged to keep them hidden. This creates a toxic culture because if no one is safe to fail or even feel like a failure, no one can risk or be vulnerable. Without vulnerability or risk there’s little creativity, innovation, or human connection. Safety and failure are intrinsically linked.
Considering my art and community development work need creativity, innovation, and human connection, I’m learning I need to make friends with my failure story rather than ”recover from it” and put it behind me in work settings. It’s actually a valuable part of my history and the foundation of some of my skills – if you’re building rapport with someone is that easier to do with a human who has failed, or someone shiny and perfect? It’s such a common mistake to hire a shiny person for a job where you need a human. And such a common misunderstanding for people like me to think we need to be less human and more shiny to be professional. In some ways it’s actually a useful resource, a point of common ground to help other folks who are struggling to feel safer around me and to help me design and implement resources and engagement approaches that click with them. That’s hard to do for folks in strife if you’ve never been there yourself. Shame is destructive but humility is valuable, and we rarely learn it from our successes.