You will fail

the cane - a school punishment device from the 1970s

In my early years at school I loved learning French. The fact that my first French teacher was a kind, enthusiastic woman who drove a yellow Triumph Spitfire had no bearing on my enjoyment whatsoever. Miss Draisey was an excellent teacher, encouraging and trusting. I remember how shaken she was when discovering two girls cheating in a French spelling test. You just didn’t cheat in Miss Draisey’s class, she was too…nice.

Jump forward a few years and I’m sitting in the exam hall at Purley High School for Boys, aka Colditz. With a few notable exceptions, the teaching staff led by DGS Akers, our thoroughly unpleasant cane wielding headmaster, were a similarly grim bunch. They made Severus Snape look like Mr Tumble. My French teacher at this school was Madame Ananin. She came across pretty miserable most of the time, and seemed to have a loathing not only for all of us school boys, but her beautiful native language too. How odd.

Back to the exam hall. I’m at my desk, just one boy in an anonymous swathe of rows and columns. The teachers responsible for adjudicating the exam stalk the rows and columns as we prepare to start ‘O’ Level French (yeah I’m really that old!). Madame Ananin is on duty and she walks purposefully along the row of desks. She stops, puts a hand on my desk and leans over. She speaks four words, ‘You will fail Shaw’. She moves away from my desk and carries on. Thanks for the vote of confidence!

I passed ‘O’ Level French. I got a B grade and an A grade for spoken French. I won the inaugural Bruce McCallum Memorial Prize for spoken French that year too. My love for the French language was and is too strong for Madame Ananin.

Nowadays in the pursuit of helping people and teams to develop I encourage people to push themselves, often to and beyond the point of failure. Through failure we learn. To make mistakes and to fail is simply human, and in an encouraging environment it is a most powerful thing.

Know this. Creativity and innovation are forever locked in a whirling dancing fling with failure and chaos. As a leader, when you tell me you want creativity and innovation that’s great. And when you join the dance you never know whose hand you’ll take. You will fail. If you practice, you will learn and you will improve. And I will be there to celebrate that with you.

Thank you Madame Ananin.

photo c/o theirhistory

39 thoughts on “You will fail

  1. David Goddin

    Doug – thanks for sharing such a powerful story. I’m completely with you on the sentiment and observation – through failure we learn.

    You’ve also made me think about just how irrelevant others perceptions of your potential for failure can be. I think within that I need to include our inner self – do we really know ourselves if we will fail or succeed? The reality is we just don’t know unless we are given the opportunity and try to succeed.

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Thanks David. I’m often surprised by how some posts catch a mood and others don’t. I thoroughly enjoyed recalling this tale and I’m not sure why ‘through failure we learn’ isn’t nailed on every CEOs door.

      And of course we never know unless we try. I’ll come back to that very point in the next couple of days.

      Cheers – Doug

      Reply
  2. Neil Usher

    Great post Doug.
    It made me think of the concept of “serial incompetence”, one that I ascribe (and maybe even subscribe) to. In case anyone has not come across this before, it describes how individuals strive to obtain a certain level of proficiency in one area but are driven to move on to the next “new” area to develop expertise. In this manner they are always learning, and yet never at the peak of their ability. As Nietzsche would say, there is no such thing as “being”, we are always “becoming”. Failure is a natural consequence of serial incompetence.

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      You’re visit’s great I hope you know it
      I love hearing from the creative poet

      I agree with Nietzsche – we are becoming
      That’s what keeps the ideas humming

      Failure is indeed a natural consequence
      Here’s to the great serial incompetence

      I think I’ll leave the poetry to you good sir. 😉

      Reply
  3. Kay Phelps

    Love this blog, Doug. It’s a doozy. My husband and I had very different upbringings in some ways. My Dad was safe – I could fail and he would still love me regardless. My husband’s stepmother, on the other hand, was more akin to Madame Ananin (except she was German!) and, in part, it’s made him incredibly determined and gritty, not worrying what people think. I think early years play such a massive part in whether we allow ourselves to try, then fail, then succeed. But for an employee to feel safe enough to go through that process at work must require just the right environment — those that get the steps to the dance right must surely have so much to celebrate. I’m absolutely positive you’re a wonderful dance teacher.

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Doozy eh? Top drawer feedback you get a gold star on top of your pavlova! I love how you’ve taken this into dance, what splendid imagery you paint Kay. Thanks ever so much.

      Reply
  4. Gareth Jones

    Wow, what a great story teller you are Doug. Given how impressionable we are as youngsters and how much emphasis we put on ‘success’ and learning at such an young age, we really ought to be a lot better at being comfortable with exploring the new and failure at an early age.

    With the exception of HR, which occupied 10 years of my life, the rest of my career has been a journey of total exploration, driven by chance as much as anything and the desire always to seek out the new, the different, the interesting. Like Neil, mine is a journey of serial incompetence. Unfortunately, sometimes that can play havoc with your self confidence. However, thanks to the last couple of years getting to know you guys, even that has become a non issue for me and for that i am eternally grateful.

    Keep the stories coming Doug. They do more than just paint a picture – they fill a gap of validation and confidence.

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Gareth – I’m going to frame your opening line, that’s such a lovely thing to say. We ought indeed to be better at exploring the new and failure at and from an earlier age. Lifelong learning is an exciting journey. I take heart from watching Keira grow and thrive and make mistakes, and only blush sometimes 🙂

      I will keep learning to paint, play and fill gaps.

      Reply
  5. Jules

    Thank you for this doug.
    To start you know I am trying to learn french and second of all I am not in a good space and this has helped just a little bit x

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Bon chance! I look forward to hearing a few words in French the next time we meet. Are you learning a new language with any particular aim in mind?

      And spaces, good and bad, shift. As long as we remember to shift often too we’ll fall into some good ones and bad ones. Keep moving – don’t give up 🙂

      Reply
  6. Martin

    And you wonder how any leader in a UK business who was schooled in the UK education system could ever truly get the idea of failure, creativity and innovation. Our schools do little to encourage what we need in the workplace IMHO. Good read, Doug.

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Hi Martin – you make a great point ‘Our schools do little to encourage what we need in the workplace’. I’ve just dropped our local high school a line to see if I can do anything to help 😉 I reckon I could lay on a good ‘rocking’ assembly for them. Keep you posted.

      Reply
  7. Stephen

    If not a vote of confidence, then it at least spurred you on to proving her wrong (that, plus your love for the language). Who knows, perversely, that might have been her intention.

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Hi Stephen – thanks for popping by. You may indeed be right about Mme Ananin’s perverse intentions and I’ve often thought the same however I can’t help but feel that encouragement might have been a better route. We’ll never know of course.

      Cheers – Doug

      Reply
  8. Lee

    Nothing to do with the world of business, but your blog came just as I start on my PGCE course to become a French teacher. I can’t see in what circumstances it is acceptable to tell a student that they’re going to fail (except perhaps to introduce the idea of getting things wrong and trying again, but just before an important exam?!!). The story helps remind me of the kind of teacher I hope to become – more Miss Draisey than Mme Ananin.

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Hello Lee – how kind of you to visit. I wish you well in your studies and I hope you get some great pupils to encourage. Good luck!

      Reply
  9. Jon Ingham

    No! Unbelievable. Miss Murphy had a yellow spitfire too! Perhaps she’d got married and changed her name by the time she taught you? Mind you, encouraging and trusting aren’t words I’d associate with the teacher I remember!

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Teachers and spitfires eh Jon – who’d a thought it? I may be wrong but from your feedback I’m pretty confident there were (at least) two spitfire driving teachers 🙂 Thanks for your visit.

      Reply
  10. Noel

    What a marvellous sentence: “Creativity and innovation are forever locked in a whirling dancing fling with failure and chaos.” I agree with Gareth Jones, you’re a great story teller.

    Oh, and my French teacher drove a pale grey 1.6 (Mk I) Ford Capri – do I need to say anything else!

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Thanks Noel – I sometimes wonder when the words hit the page if it isn’t all a bit too….cheezy? Your feedback and encouragement is therefore very helpful.

      Your teacher flashback briefly reminded me of the Tom Robinson Band song Grey Cortina, thanks 🙂

      Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Hi Peter thanks for popping by. And if I recall correctly John Otway also told us to Beware Of The Flowers (Cos I’m Sure they’re Gonna Get You Yeah). Keira has grown two huge (ten foot plus) sunflowers in the back garden, I think I saw one of them looking at me in a funny way…

      Reply
  11. Ailsa Wiggans

    Like others, I too have been told I would fail at some things. All I can say is ‘thank you’ to those that said it because I proved them wrong every time …… and learnt SO much doing so. Failure, if seen as something to learnt from, can be so beneficial. It should be renamed!!!!!

    Incidentally my french teacher was the wonderful Mr Adams who was one of the funniest, most constructive teachers I ever had. I used to love his lessons.

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Hello Ailsa – welcome to the conversation. I think your idea of a rebrand and rename for failure is fabulous. What would you like to rename it?

      Thanks for the kind recollection of Mr Adams, we never forget the great ones eh 🙂

      Reply
  12. Mark Benfold

    Thanks for a thought provoking piece.
    failure: “constructive evaluation opportunity”?
    You’ve brought back memories of school. I “didn’t pass” o-level french twice. I managed at the third attempt.
    I realise that I didn’t have enough opportunities to fail and learn whilst at school. Subsequently having to learn to fail whilst at Uni and afterwards made it all the harder as the support and encouragement wasn’t there.
    I wonder about the current push to categorise all results at school so that nobody gets the stigma of “failure”. How much grief are we storing up for the future?

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Hello Mark, I’m delighted this post has provoked thoughts in you and so many others, really I am. And it’s great that you persisted and nailed the best of o level French on the third attempt. I expect many would have quit – all credit to you.

      Your final observation fascinates and worries me. As our earlier correspondent Ailsa suggested, perhaps we need to rename, rethink what failure is and means?

      Thanks for taking the time to think about and contribute to the conversation, it’s all the better for having you here.

      Reply
  13. Charlie Duff

    ‘Fail fast and change things’ is on the wall in the office. As well as ‘Get excited and make things’.

    I’m going to share this post with my brother, who told me today that he had failed too much recently. In fact, he seeing more success than he has in years! And I’m sending it to one of my best friends who is a teacher. I’m pretty sure she’d never tell one of her boys that they would fail.

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Nice one Charlie – I need more stuff on my wall. I have: a line drawing by a friend of Keira’s titled ‘Let The Angels Surround You’ (it’s very cool), I have a faded drawing of a heart by Keira, next to which she has scrawled I love you bab (done whilst learning to write still muddling b and d), and a desk stand drawn by Keira. It shows a picture of me and says ‘Doug, he makes work better!’

      I love the fact that your avatar on here has come out with cool sunglasses and a huge grin. Feel free to share the wonder of failure with as many folk as you like 🙂

      Reply
  14. Ailsa Wiggans

    I think it was Johnny Wilkinson who had scored a huge number of tries one year and when he was interviewed and asked what he put his success down to he said he had also missed a huge number of times! His success was down to the fact he worked hard and learnt from his mistakes/failures of which he had plenty.

    Failures are real opportunities (yes, corny but so true). I grew up in an educational system where you either succeeded or failed. I have a 7 year old and see the way she is developed at school being so much more positive. I do believe in letting kids (and adults) fail and loose at things but always praise the effort, the thought that goes into it and the learning that took place. No one sets out to fail … and sometime we forget that. By treating failure/these opportunities as things that have happened that we can then learn from they become comfortable and maybe even exciting! How many adults’ self-esteem could be helped by seeing things that don’t go right in a learning light!!!!

    OK, jumping off my soapbox now to enjoy this fabulous sunshiine while we have it.

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      Great stuff Ailsa, I really appreciate you popping back again. There are many sporting tales like Wilkinson’s, David Beckham and his free kicks, Michael Jordan and his hoops, and I’m sure there are loads more. I wonder why it’s OK in sports and not OK in other fields???

      I’m delighted you see your kid developing so positively. I think the school environment will have something to do with it and of course you do too.

      I’ve really enjoyed your recent comments – I think you offer a great future for a rethink of failure. Keep it going!

      Reply
  15. Karen Drury

    I remember working at the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool years ago as a lowly publicity assistant. Frankly, it seemed I could do nothing right, making stupid mistakes. I was snivelling in a corner one day after a particularly distastrous morning when the Liverpudlian administrator, Josie, stumbled on me and asked me what was wrong. When I told her, she looked at me, took a slurp of her tea and said “Pet, it’s only when you do NOTHING, that nothing goes right. When you’re ALWAYS doing things, they go wrong all the time.”

    Reply
    1. Doug Shaw Post author

      I’d never consider you lowly Karen 🙂

      What stands out for me in your story is you can recall Josie’s name. She clearly made a big impact.

      Reply
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  18. Ailsa Wiggans

    So do I but I still don’t like the word ‘fail’! You ‘fail’ at exams but you can’t fail at having an experience can you? Especially if you take it as a positive development opportunity ……

    Reply
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