Write it in your heart. You’re human, so you fail – but you’re not a failure

So many of us fail to draw a distinction between making a mistake and being a mistake

I once observed the aftermath of a fairly minor collision between a car and a van. The van driver was berating the car driver who stood with his head down, taking it all, and looking thoroughly ashamed.

Suddenly, the van driver stopped in mid-rant.

“Ah, here, look, it’s not that bad,” he said. “I know a guy who’ll fix it at a fair price. Come on, I’ll bring you there.”

He got into the van and told the man to follow him to a place around the corner and again assured him that “it’s not that bad”.


This isn’t about a scam. As it happened, I knew the man around the corner and that he would, indeed, do the job for a fair price.

What’s interesting about it to me today is that while the man in the car seemed to have failed to drive carefully, he looked like a man who saw himself and not his driving as the failure.

Looking at him, you imagined you were looking at a child being shamed over and over by a bully of a parent – and I think the van driver, whose entire tone softened in a second, saw that too.

But it’s not just that man. So many of us have that fear of failure, not just because of the real world consequences but because we fail to draw a distinction between making a mistake and being a mistake.

And that’s where we aim our attacks too. Bullies in the workplace and in the schoolyard seek to make their targets feel like they are unworthy failures. When they pick on someone who is vulnerable to that belief, the results can be damaging and sometimes fatal for that person.

It’s not a logical thing. It has often been remarked that people bullied in the workplace tend to be good at their jobs. Yet these same people can be desperately distressed by the bullying. It may be that those who are most distressed have a belief deep inside them that they are, in fact, failures and the bully instinctively picks up on this. And maybe the bully picks up on it because he or she also has, deep inside, a conviction of being a failure.

Maybe that’s what drives the aggressive loudmouths we’ve been hearing about who stand on the sidelines at junior football matches roaring at referees about what failures (to put it mildly) they are. While they are shouting abuse at the scapegoat they don’t have to look at the fears they harbour deep inside themselves.

Visceral conviction

We don't really know where this visceral conviction of failure comes from. The great child psychologist Jean Piaget believed that in our earliest days we don't make a distinction between ourselves and what happens around us – everything that happens is made to happen by me. If a teddy bear unbalances and topples over, that event is part of me. An event that's bad is part of me as is an event that's good.

Gradually, though, we make the distinction between what we made happen and things that were not our doing and that process is completed before the age of seven.

But the vestiges remain, in my opinion, and that fear of being a failure may be one of them.

So I think it’s very important – maybe one of the most important things you could do – to keep hammering home to yourself the distinction between failing and being a failure, between doing something bad and being bad, between carrying out a stupid act and being stupid.

As this distinction sinks in, you don’t have to be defensive because you no longer have to fear being a failure or being wrong. You try to succeed and to be right but it isn’t a judgement on you if it doesn’t work,

That’s important because exaggerated defensiveness is bad for relationships of all kinds, including marriage and long term partnerships.

So write it in your heart. You’re human, so you fail. But you’re not a failure,