On… failure

My friend Sarah is a psychologist and journalist. She’s also impossibly beautiful and hilarious. I am friends with her despite these massive flaws.

She emailed last week saying she’d been tasked with writing about ‘famous failures’. People who overcome huge life-changing fuck-ups and go on to become bigger and better, like Nicole Kidman post-divorce and Al Gore post-election.

My first reaction (after ‘Nicole Kidman is ‘bigger and better’? When was the last time anyone watched a movie she was in? And anyway, is it called ‘failure’ when the marriage contract simply expired?’) was that there are a lot of them. In fact it’s hard to think of anyone successful who hasn’t overcome fuck-ups.

For example – and this is just the ones I thought of in a few minutes, so I know you can probably think of loads more – Hugh Grant got a blowie from a pro but used the incident to make him look less foppishly fey. Victoria Beckham was a singalong robot till she discovered her love of design (and Roland Mouret’s dressmakers, ahem).

Judd Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks was cancelled and he went on to make Anchorman, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Superbad, etc. (Freaks and Geeks being cancelled while shit like Two And A Half Men is still slopped out on our televisual plates like week-old spagbog is a travesty, by the way, a fucking travesty, and don’t even get me started on the utterly needless cancellation of Firefly and just-finding-its-feet Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip and the best show of our time, Arrested Development. Amen. At least we have True Blood, MadMen and 30 Rock. And now we come to the end of my viewing favourites tour.)

Where was I? Yes. And then we have a long, long list of people who didn’t quite fail, but took a while to find their success boots, from Kevin Costner (cutting room floor of The Big Chill) to Dustin Hoffman (was a jobbing actor for as long as I’ve been wearing a bra). Or JK Rowling, whose Harry Potter manuscript was rejected, what, 22 thousand times? And so was John Grisham’s first manuscript. (I don’t read John Grisham either, darling, but he has done rather well.)

And Marc Jacobs designed the infamous grunge collection for Perry Ellis in 91 or 92, I think it was, then he was fired, but then it went on to be like the biggest influence in fashion evah and he became his current, utterly amazing, ridiculously awesome self.

And so on.

As I was wittering thusly in my email reply to Sarah I began to think that no one’s trajectory to success is seamless. Success takes a shitload of work and luck and the ability to bounce back and keep trying when you fuck up.

I think that’s why I hate the word ‘failure’. It’s deflated, bloodless little sigh of a word that implies ‘you may as well stop trying, there’s no point, you’ve hit rock-bottom and you’ll never succeed from here’. I would happily say I’ve fucked up in my life. Many, many times. But I’d never say I’d failed.

And sometimes, my fuck-ups result in a high-five.

I hope this doesn’t sound too Pollyannaish, but let’s take a look at a few examples of Gemma fuck-ups-turned-high-fives… (this is especially for you Andrea, who requested ‘more personal stuff in your blogs!’). I hated boarding school (and it hated me). But that made me more independent. I failed French at university. But I had to make up the extra points and graduated with a triple major in English, History and Theatre. I was cheated on by my first boyfriend and dumped by several shallow bastardos. But I can sniff out a cockmonkey at 20 yards and got a lot of good stories. In my first houseshare in London, my flatmates stole £600 from me and left the country. But I got wiser and tougher and lived in a series of far nicer places (with occasional nutjob flatmates who stressed me out but made for even better stories). I was made redundant. But my boss was a fuckwipe and I immediately found a far better job. I broke up with a guy I was living with after three years together, which was excruciatingly sad. But then I felt truly invincible, because I’d been (retch, apologies, cliché incoming) true to myself, and found someone who was (retch, again, apologies) really and truly perfect for me. I had a very painful back injury and was bedridden for a few weeks. But then I wrote the first few chapters of The Dating Detox and discovered the joy of Pilates. And so on.

As Mummy Burgess (yoga-teaching, cocktail-loving little hippie) always says: everything happens for a reason. No matter how unhappy or stressed I have felt in the past, everything has worked out fine… sometimes as a result of being unhappy and stressed.

I need to caveat here that I know my bad times really haven’t been that bad, and if I was talking about genuine tragedy or loss, I would never be so glib.

And – second caveat, as usual, I love a good caveat – not that I’m all happy-happy-joy-joy all the time these days either. I get insecure and weepy. I enjoy regular ‘I suck’ moments when I want to just lie down on the floor and wail, and/or burn everything I’ve ever written. I fight the eternal desperate need for reassurance that plagues every creative. I worry that everyone will hate A Girl Like You. I wonder if anyone will ever option The Dating Detox and think that dagnabbit, the script I wrote is really funny and it’s just sitting there, and then wonder if any of the other projects I’m working on will ever work out. It’s all pretty damn pathetic, I can tell you. But then I tell myself to shut up and stop whinging. Because life is good. And most of the time, as long as I keep trying, I feel like I’m doing okay.

I say we should embrace our fuck-ups. If nothing ever happened to us, we’d be so boring… and so bored.

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2 thoughts on “On… failure

  1. Robyn Slingsby

    Great post Gemma, you've hit it on the nose. Failure is so part of succeeding and I'm a great believer in "everything happens for a reason". If you split up with a "bastardo" it's 'cos Mr Right is just around the corner. If you lose your job there'll be a new career ahead of you, etc. Failure makes us learn and – I use this line a lot – it's better to regret something you have done than something you haven't. Shit happens and sometimes big shit happens but everyone's due their fair share of success and good luck too :0)


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