Failure is Optional

“I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Thomas Edison certainly knew a thing or two about failure and success.  Amazing to think how different our lives would be if he hadn’t kept going through all the mistakes (and well over a thousand registered patents) before finally bringing electricity to the world.

Fear of failure is common and it is powerful.  It increases vulnerability and self-doubt.  In fact our inner critic would argue that it’s safer to not even try.  This inner voice (usually full of unsubstantiated claims and dramatic conclusions) is simply trying to keep us safe – from disappointment, judgement, loss and all those negative things.  So why try?

We tend to use all sorts of tools such as procrastination, perfectionism, doubt, envy – all to avoid failure.  But what if we saw it as a mere step along the way?  Is it even possible to change our perspective on something that is so personal?

In social psychology there’s a concept known as the ‘fundamental attribution error’.  This is the tendency to over-emphasise personality explanations for behaviour, while under-emphasising environmental effects.  So if I do really well in an exam I will decide it’s because I’m really smart; if I fail, however, I’ll blame the unfair questions.  Failure in this case is not my fault – I can blame someone or something else.

If it’s possible to make a mistake like this in failure attribution, surely it’s also possible to change how we think about it.  A shift in perspective can shine light on the path ahead rather than the trips and falls along the road behind that got us here; ‘eyes on the prize’ I suppose you’d call it.  For artists and creators, in particular, this is simply vital in order to keep going.

“Making art is being willing to fail publicly.” Oliver Jeffers

If we take a leaf out of this book and find persistence to keep going then all sorts of treats lie in store.  We can find the courage to admit defeat on something and call it learning, or we can find the courage to try something new and call it success.  It’s up to us.

Yes, we may fail.  Yes, people may laugh.  But in this case, failure is an option.  Embrace it and don’t take it personally.  It happens to the best of us – just ask Thomas Edison.

Listen to the blog post here!

The Change

I had a birthday this week and am developing a superpower – invisibility. Along with greying hair and daily new wrinkles comes the ability to disappear. But female midlife is also an opportunity to ask questions and finally find out who we are.

The power and beauty of youth will always be revered (although they themselves are not aware, youth is indeed wasted on the young). All those daytime TV sofas with older men seated next to young women; those relationships with older men standing next to young women. The only time this is questioned, or even noticed, is when it is the other way round – goodness, people point out, he’s much younger than her! Sugar daddies are allowed. Toy boys are not.

Societal expectations that define females by sexuality are not going to go away. Not soon at any rate. And the layer of shame and guilt that join midlife changes make for a potent mixture for women of a certain age. This is more than a midlife crisis and its attendant search for meaning. Caring responsibilities tend to fall on females, as do household chores. Then along come sleeplessness, joint pain, mood swings, hot flushes, weight gain and those pesky grey hairs and wrinkles. GPs who don’t understand. No-one talks about it and yet one hundred percent of women will face it at some point. Biologists call it post-reproductive lifespan. We call it menopause.

Only three known mammals experience the menopause – orcas, short-finned pilot whales and us humans. Even our closest ape cousins, chimpanzees, do not go through it. It puzzles evolutionary biologists who wonder why females continue to live so long beyond reproductive capabilities. To paraphrase: what’s the point of old ladies?

A fascinating study of killer whales in the wild found that the grannies (upwards of ninety years old) were in charge of training younger family members to find food. And they had stopped having babies in order to allow their offspring to thrive. Natural selection is still at work here but it is the menopause, rather than reproduction, that keeps their genes strong into the next generations.

As with orcas, so with humans. Women know what they’re about and older women have a part to play in this world. We can grow old gracefully (or fight against it if that’s your preference) but this hard-won life experience should be treasured, not ridiculed. It should be noticed, not ignored.

Listen here for an audio version (not read out by a whale unfortunately)

Turns out, there is beauty in wisdom. And it is there for all to see if we just open our eyes.

You’ve Got to Laugh

What’s so funny? We humans laugh all the time, often during inappropriate situations or dark times or just for the fun of it. It’s common across our social species and it might just save your life.

Children laugh easily, giggling at prat falls or silly faces. From our twenties onward, though, we lose that ability. Maturity brings with it a barrier to simple joys as we plod through life getting stuff done and being grown up. But laughter really is the best medicine. It lowers cortisol, the stress hormone, while increasing blood flow, relaxing muscles and triggering happy hormones. It’s good to laugh – our bodies and minds respond well to it.

And so do our relationships. Research shows that people laugh up to 30% more at an amusing clip when in company. Watching funny films or TV shows together can deepen our relationships as we share a bonding exercise like no other. It’s contagious too. So often I’ve laughed simply because someone nearby was doing it, even though I didn’t know the joke – it was funny anyway.

Best of all is humour’s ability to be dark. I love black humour, it never fails to hit my funny bone. Maybe the Northern Irish are particularly good at this given our painful history and natural inclination to shrug off badness with good humour. “If you didn’t laugh, you’d cry”, as my Granny used to say. Use dark humour with caution though – the old axiom states that tragedy + time =  comedy. It may be too soon to make a joke about something, so timing is everything.

Even those who are bereaved show less anger and distress when they can remember their loved one with warmth. This week is the anniversary of my brother’s death. Stephen was very funny, a wizard of sarcasm, and even six years on I still smile when I picture his comedic frown. On the day family and friends gathered to scatter his ashes in the sea at a local park we all stopped short when we rounded the corner to find that the tide was out. A moment passed before we all shared the most meaningful giggle in the world. Stephen would have found it hilarious and it was a precious comedic moment in an otherwise dark time.

Laughter is healing. We’ve lost sight of it recently but it is available all the time if we seek it out. I’m off now to watch an episode of Father Ted – truly the best medicine.

Listen here for audio version!

Fear itself

Are you frightened? There’s so much going on in the world right now and I, for one, am feeling it. We humans have all sorts of emotions, and they rattle around competing for control of our bodies and behaviours as we make our way in the world. Fear is strong. It can result in illness, life-limiting phobias, broken relationships, inability to thrive. And we run and hide in an attempt to stay safe.

We fear death, rejection, failure. These things happen all the time and so we feel justified. In the midst of a second wave of a global pandemic I am fearful about my health and the health of my loved ones. I’m fearful about the future of democracy. I’m fearful about financial insecurity. I’m fearful that the planet won’t survive. All big things wouldn’t you agree? The list could overwhelm. But what if we looked at those fears – really looked – and decided to sit with them and talk to them? Would they change their shape?

In 1920 a now infamous study took place in the US. The ‘Little Albert’ experiment sought to show conditioning by inducing fear through loud noise. A white rat was introduced to little Albert (aged 11 months) who initially remained calm, he was simply interested in something he’d never seen before. But following several more meetings with said rat, including loud bangs each time, he grew frightened. And his fear remained. (Look this up on YouTube if you want to see what scientists used to get away with – how far we’ve come!)

Aside from the countless ethical issues this is a sad outcome. Perhaps we are born naturally curious and fear is learned after all. Our ancient lizard brain processes it instantly as information arrives in the amygdala without time to think or plan our response. This stood us in good stead when dangers involved being eaten by predators but in modern life all sorts of different kinds of triggers can still provoke that primal response – immediate, frightening, requiring fight or flight. Run first, ask questions later.

But those physiological responses such as nausea or a quickening heart rate can also invoke tingly butterflies, excitement, even awe, but only when we pause to look and ask questions. Curiosity seeks information and information leads to knowledge and knowledge is power.

Fear and curiosity cannot co-exist. Be curious. Ask questions. And maybe, just maybe, your fears will recede.

Listen to the post here!

Perchance to Dream

I love sleep. There’s nothing like climbing into a warm bed at the end of a long day and drifting off. I’ve always loved it. Even as a child on Christmas morning I was fairly grumpy about having to get up.

Now that the clocks have gone back our sleep patterns are coming to the fore with chronotype differences aplenty. Circadian rhythms are strong and we each fall into specific categories, usually described with helpful animal analogies. The old birds (larks and owls) have been superseded in modern sleep psychology by new creatures that describe our nocturnal habits: now we are bears, wolves, lions or dolphins.

Bears are the most common apparently, working within solar patterns and having a doze late afternoon, while the lions are up early, getting lots done and then it’s off for an early night. Dolphins account for a smaller group. These incredible creatures sleep hemispherically, one side of their brain remaining awake, and even one eye still open. Their human counterparts haven’t worked out how to do that yet but they are the insomniacs who sleep only a little, always hyper aware.

I know I’m a wolf – get up late, slink around the place being a bit useless until darkness falls and suddenly spring into action. Maybe bite, on occasion, if someone gets too close.

Since chronotype is fairly fixed (as impossible to change as the colour of your eyes) it can be challenging to share time with a different creature – a bear will struggle to understand the dolphin who simply can’t get to sleep. (Stay with me, I know the image is odd, bears swim don’t they?) And the need to remain unconscious for several hours every day is a strange species requirement anyway. Our brains are surely carrying out tasks of immense importance while we sleep: memory encoding, dreaming and everything in between.

In spite of its importance to our wellbeing, sleep is still overlooked in a modern culture that tends to reward busyness and early risers while tutting at those who sleep late and take their time. “Look”, they say, pointing at the bird with its worm, “that’s how to get on in life.” For wolves like me, who are still snoring happily away while the birds (or lions) skip around getting stuff done, it can be frustrating to be dismissed as lazy. We work hard too, it just happens to be dark at the time.

Whatever your type, or life circumstances, seek sleep – your brain will thank you.