Here are some previous thoughts on the subject of Failure. When you have finished on this page, click Back to look at other topics.


The main Examining Boards have deprived students of a range of excuses for not doing well. The effect of traumatic experience close to the time of the exam will now be reflected by adding a percentage to their mark. Recent death of a parent or close relative will mean the addition of 5%, witnessing a distressing event on the day of the exam - 3%, hay fever - 2%, death of family pet on day of exam - 2%, headache - 1%.

Adam and Eve reputedly found an excuse for their decision to disobey God. Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent. Their failure to take responsibility for their own behaviour symbolised as much as anything else their fall from the kind of humanity God had intended.

There are often very valid reasons why we don’t achieve what we otherwise would, or why we fail to reach our potential. The Examining Board’s new rules recognise this and sensibly take account of the kind of uncontrollable events which can affect a students’ performance. But it’s important that they don’t encourage the student automatically to blame external circumstances for a poor result. It’s an important part of growing up to accept responsibility for what we do and for any achievement (or lack of it), however adverse the circumstances.

Today we might perhaps wish to check that, however many very reasonable excuses we might use to justify any mistake or inadequacy, we accept responsibility for it. To do so is part of what it is to be fully human.


Art historian Mei-Ying Sung has discovered that William Blake took years to complete each piece of his renowned engraving because he constantly had to correct mistakes. Her study of the backs of his copper engraving plates reveals multiple errors which he obliterated by "repoussage", beating out the plate from the back so as to knock out the mistakes and achieve a smooth surface that could be cut again.

Whatever beauty there is in most people’s lives is also a result of repeated trial and error. We’ve become who we are partly by making mistakes and learning how to move on from them creatively. The apostle Paul saw such weakness as particularly valuable since it allowed Christ to become involved in our growth (2 Corinthians 12.8-10).

Blake on the other hand pretended he always got it right first time. He once said 'every line is the line of beauty, it is only fumble and bungle which cannot draw a line'. Perhaps today we might celebrate the struggles that have made us who we are and feel no need to hide our fumbles and bungles.


In Cornwall, parking wardens recently clamped a van belonging to a dead man and then refused to waive the £350 release fee. In Kristiansand, on Norway's southern tip, a motorist unable to move because of rush hour traffic got a parking ticket. The officials involved clearly need to enrol for the new BTEC qualification for ‘immobilisation operatives’. Described as a course to assist clampers and parking wardens with communication skills and conflict resolution, let’s hope it also equips them to make less stupid decisions!

It’s not only parking wardens who do stupid things; and a thirty-hour training course would make little impact on the capacity of nearly all of us to make silly mistakes or behave foolishly. Careless speech or clumsy behaviour can leave us feeling very red in the face, even when only we know about it.

Occasionally embarrassment is the only appropriate response. But often, there is a reason why we have done or said something stupid. It may be a sign that we are over-tired, or that we are feeling threatened, or that something not yet identified is making us uncomfortable. We can make something creative out of a faux pas if we pause to reflect on why this normally sensible person suddenly does something silly; and then take appropriate action.


So Steve McClaren has been given the sack after England's ignominious defeat last Wednesday. Unwilling to blame the number of injured first team members, he apologised to fans for the failure.He clearly felt neither he nor the team had done justice to themselves

That part of his experience is familiar to most of us, though few will have failed so publicly. Sometimes we have worked hard towards a particular goal over a set period or sometimes in a more general way, we’ve sought to develop skills so that we become more expert at our work or our living. When we fail, all the effort seems wasted.

When Elijah experienced failure (1 Kings 19.4-8) and wanted to give up, it was a kind hostess whose attention to his needs brought him to his senses. Gregory Louganus, an Olympic diver in the eighties, when asked about the prospect of failure, apparently said, ‘Whatever happens, my mother will still love me’.

It is very painful to feel we’re not doing justice to ourselves. Sometimes, though, the experience gives us a new perspective in which we realise the value of things like the love of parents and friends, or the kindness of strangers. Let’s hope Steve is getting such support at the moment and that when we feel we’ve let ourselves down, we have people to stand by us.


The fashion firm Triumph International has a bra in its winter collection depicting a Japanese racehorse. Earlier this year, Haru-urara became famous when she clocked up her 106th straight defeat. Her losing streak has won her a place in the hearts of millions of Japanese.

The popularity of Haru-urara, which means “gentle spring”, may have something to do with Japan’s current economic doldrums. People who are struggling financially perhaps find her capacity to keep on losing strikes chords with their own experience.

Losers don’t just live in Japan. In fact, there is a bit of most people which can identify with the feeling of not doing very well. Even for the most confident of us, there may be parts of our lives where we feel we are frequently unsuccessful. Failing is an experience many people have.

Mostly we would prefer to forget such downfalls. But to do so is a missed opportunity. St Paul pointed out that it was losers out of whom God created the Christian community at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:26-27). Facing our shortcomings and valuing their contribution to our lives can often release new insight and energy.

Triumph International say they have chosen the emblem because Haru-urara is a symbol of determination. Perhaps today we could try cheering on those parts of ourselves which seem to be under-achieving even if there seems no end to their losing streak. A “gentle spring” could be the result.


El Totumo, in Atlántico in Colombia, is one of the world’s largest mud volcanoes. It was created by natural gasses emitted by decaying organic matter underground. The mud is pushed upwards by the gas and it hardens above ground. As more mud oozes out and spills over the edge, it grows in size, and El Totumo is 15 metres high. At the top is a rich, creamy mud crater in which visitors are encouraged to bathe. The mud’s qualities are indisputably good for the skin.

The mud becomes available because it is surfaced for us by gas from dead, decaying and disintegrating material. In our lives, too, what seems just useless waste, can also sometimes have a value. Times of failure and pain seem to have no purpose. Yet these experiences, recycled mysteriously within us, often become the source of creative and positive changes in our personalities and ways of being. They can purify and refresh, and lead to wiser decisions and deeper understanding of ourselves and others.

Christian belief in Christ’s death and resurrection represents this same process. Christ’s new life was stronger because it had emerged from the decay of death.

If today we are experiencing pain and failure which just seem wasteful, let’s not dismiss these experiences but allow our psyches to process them. We might become stronger people as a result.