Nobody in their right mind wakes up one morning and decides that they want to write a book on failure. Now, some of you may doubt whether I have ever been in my right mind, but lets put that aside for now!
The context in which I did so is this:
In 2011, my marriage came to an end after 14 years which left me with a sense of failure.
I then went through 5 years of being both single mum and fulltime surgical trainee and feeling that I was doing neither well. I was not at home enough to be what I thought a good mum should be and I wasn’t at work enough to fulfil my own expectations of what a good surgical trainee is.
I then became a consultant and had to start taking responsibility for my own complications and the impact of my decision-making.
Then as special punishment for the new consultant, my department asked me to take on the role of Patient Safety Lead and Mortality Lead in General Surgery – which has ultimately led me to investigating Serious Incidents – such as potentially avoidable death.
Then, if that wasn’t enough, I decided to set up a Bereavement Service, to allow bereaved families to come back and ask any questions or raise any concerns they may have.
I therefore found that I was dealing with some aspect of failure fairly frequently, and did not feel that I really understood failure enough to do it well.
As a Christian, I also felt that God was calling me to write a book on failure and I didn’t want to do it. Every time I felt a little nagging – “write the book, write the book” I would say No. I explained to God that there are many things that I would like to be known for and to be good at, but failure has never been on the agenda.
It came to a head one evening when I was praying and I felt the nagging again – “write the book, write the book”. In exasperation I said to God “OK! I will write this blinking book but on one condition. I want you to give me one example, from the Bible, of someone who did everything well and still failed catastrophically. Because if I’m going to write a book, I don’t want to just write in on error, I want to write it on that sense of failure you can have even when you are doing everything to your best ability.”
I shut my eyes and had a sudden, immediate and clear picture of the cross of Jesus. I was gobsmacked.
“Ok.., God…” I said, “Can I just clarify? Are we now calling Jesus a failure? And if we are, are you asking me to write a book for which my non-Christian friends, family and colleagues are going to think that I am a lunatic, and my Christian friends, family and colleagues are going to think I am a heretic??”
Ladies and Gentleman, friends, family and colleagues, I have been reassured that for those of you who know me that none of you can possibly think of me as any more of a lunatic or a heretic than you already do by me writing a book. … Which I guess is reassurance of sorts !
Finally, there are four take home messages for tonight on failure:
1. Failure is everywhere. There is no part of our lives, no organisation and no industry that failure, feelings of failure or fear of failure does not effect from time to time. And yet our bookshops are littered with books on success.
2. Failure can be extremely painful. It can be associated with very strong negative emotions of shame, guilt and fear. We need to support friends, family and colleagues who are experiencing these.
From a healthcare point of view, no healthcare professional goes into work with the intention of causing harm. And therefore, when a healthcare professional or professionals are involved in anyway in a failure, then there is no-one who can blame and condemn them for their role in that they themselves. Therefore, a culture of blame in our relationships or in our organisations is not just counter-productive, it stops individuals and the organisations learning.
3. Failing Intelligently is hard. Failing well involves not being defined by your failure, but seeing it as separate from you and a tool to help you learn. It also involves taking responsibility for your part in failure, apologising and learning from it. But this is difficult. It is difficult at work and it is even more difficult at home. I am sure that if you twisted my husbands arm hard enough he may just admit that, although I have written the book, that when we argue, I am not the best at failing well.
4. Failure is important. Research from organisations, education and individuals show a similar theme. That those that only ever succeed, ultimately fail. But those that learn to fail well, ultimately succeed because failing well leads to adaptability, versatility and resilience.
Please do buy the book. I have tried to keep it short and sweet. My stubbornness and belligerence meant that I was not prepared to write a book more than five chapters long. I would love to receive positive feedback on the book. But I also need to receive the negative feedback too, because without this I cannot fail intelligently.