On failure

October 15th, 2015 | Categories: walking randomly | Tags:

“It’s OK for you, you never really fail at anything.” my friend accused me as I was trying to convince her to apply for a hotly-contested promotion.

This left me a little stunned because I fail all the time. Not just occasionally, not just with small-time stuff but ALL. THE. TIME! Sometimes I fail so hard that the sense of loss, of failure that I feel is almost physical.

I wanted to set the record straight…give an idea of how I fail..in the large and the small. So I told her of some of the huge bucket of fail that is me. Bear in mind that this is by no means a complete list…this is just some of the stuff that I feel comfortable talking about!


Before I started my PhD, I attempted to complete a PGCE (Qualification required to become a school teacher in the UK). I crashed and burned halfway through the course and dropped out. I don’t remember a time when I was more miserable in my professional life! I still find it difficult to think about that year and even more difficult to talk about it.

After my PhD, I applied for dozens of jobs, both academic and commercial, before I landed the job that changed my life at The University of Manchester. During my time at Manchester I failed to be promoted several times before I finally achieved it.

Now I’m at The University of Sheffield and things are better than they’ve ever been! I have a truly wonderful job! I tried to get here several years ago, however, and..you guessed it…I failed (Worst. Interview. Ever!)


To program, to sysadmin is to fail…often. I try something, it fails. I try something else, it fails. On and on it goes until success is mine. Sometimes I never succeed. Researchers often come to me asking if I can speed up their code and sometimes, after several days of intense effort, I report back with a resigned ‘No. Sorry! – Here’s a list of things that don’t work’.

When I write code, I consider failure to be so likely that I assume that I definitely will fail (See Croucher’s law in this talk). I engineer my working practices to get past the inevitable failures as quickly as possible.

Physical failures

At the beginning of this article I said the feeling of failure can feel almost physical. Sometimes it IS physical such as the time I fought in the TAGB Semi-Contact Taekwondo World Championships (long time ago!) and had my ass neatly handed to me by the Canadian national champion! I subsequently failed to eat properly for 5 days straight thanks to the hardest left hook I’ve ever experienced in my life (semi-contact kinda goes out of the window at that level).

I gave everything I had in that fight and lost! When I tell people the story, however, I don’t dwell on the fact that I lost. I concentrate on the fact that I had the chops to be there. I remember the bit where I kicked him off his feet, I remember being knocked to the ground and feeling afraid of getting back up, of going back in but doing it anyway. I remember that one of the 4 judges awarded the fight to me so I couldn’t have done THAT badly. I remember my opponent hugging me after the fight and telling me that it had ‘been awesome’. I’m proud of that fight!

My Taekwondo days are far behind me now and, these days, I get my physical kicks by lifting weights. I concentrate on the major lifts such as Squat, Deadlift, Press and Bench Press. The aim is to always lift more and I still consider myself a novice. Most of the time, when I increase the weight, I fail. Failure is much more likely than success since I am working at the limit of my strength. The successes feel amazing though…to be able to say I’m stronger than I’ve ever been and to have numerical evidence…good times!

Future failures

I currently have several projects on the go – some personal, some professional — some large and some small. I fully expect to succeed with some of them and fail miserably in others. Some of the failures are going to hurt! A lot!

I’m waiting on the outcome of a major endeavour for me (EPSRC Research Software Engineering Fellowship) — something for which failure is highly likely since the competition is so fierce. I’ll not deny that I’m afraid but I’m also excited.

What has failure taught me?

When I reflect on my many failures, only a tiny subset of which are given above, I note that there are some common threads.

Success (and failure) is often half-chance I always suspected that this was the case and now that Neil Lawrence has done his NIPS experiment, we have data to back it up.

“whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much or berate yourself either – your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s.” Don’t forget the sunscreen

I fail a lot! Over time this has taught me that, although it hurts, the pain is rarely permanent. Over time, you get desensitised to it. Not so much that you become careless — you still prefer to avoid it — but enough to stop being afraid all the time. I’ve failed before, it’s not so bad!

My sense of identity is dominated more by my successes than my failures. I don’t dwell on my failures too much. I might allow myself to wallow in self-pity for a short-time following something big but at some point I’ll channel my inner-Pratchett “If failure had no penalty success would not be a prize”, see what I can learn from the failure and move on. My successes, on the other hand, stay with me for a long time! I don’t regret my failures but I relish my successes. This is probably why some people, such as my friend, think I don’t fail all that much. I rarely tell the stories unless I can spin them to make my failures look like a success.

People respect you more when you own up to failure. In my career, I’ve worked with a huge number of risk-averse people who are more interested in ensuring that no one thinks a failure is their fault than they are in fixing the failure. I try to put my hand up and say ‘My bad! Really sorry! I’m working on fixing it. Feel free to deliver me a kicking if you think I deserve it.’

I find that, rather than delivering said-kicking, most people choose to appear alongside me, shovel in hand and we dig ourselves out of the hole together.

I succeed a lot! I put myself ‘out there’ a lot. On this blog, in my job, with my friends. I try things that other people might shy away from, I take risks. I fail.

I also succeed! The net result has been a wonderful wife, a great group of friends, fantastic job, good fitness…great life.


A CV of failure – The Nature article that inspired me to write this blog post

  1. October 15th, 2015 at 19:28
    Reply | Quote | #1

    Great post, Mike. It is hard when it seems people around you succeed without exception, there’s a lot more that could be done in academia to encourage healthy expectation management.

    Side note: amusing that a paper on being open about failure isn’t Open Access.

  2. October 16th, 2015 at 09:43
    Reply | Quote | #2

    Nice post Mike, reminds me of the old adage “Success has many fathers, but failure is a complete bastard”…