I was inspired the other day listening to the author Bernadine Evaristo chatting on the podcast How to Fail with Elizabeth Day. She’s led such an interesting, inspiring life. Her attitude is that a failure isn’t really a failure, as each one teaches you something and moves you forwards.
It got me to thinking about failures I’ve had, and what I’ve taken from them. Is there really something to learn from every single one of them?
Two failures that spring to mind which definitely changed my trajectory were failing a business French module at university, and the failure to get a diploma in translation many years after having left university.
Failed at…Business French
I failed business French because I DID NOT HAVE A CLUE what it was all about. The lectures passed by in a blur of boredom. This was the final term of my second year of studies, and my French wasn’t far past A-level.
I was always pretty good at French at school, but not great. I’d never studied anything to do with business, so even if I had understood a word the lecturers were saying, it would have gone totally over my head.
No surprises then that I have vague recollection of seeing the exam paper and just thinking ‘what the…’. I’ve always been good in exam situations, one of those people that quite enjoys them. But I’d never experienced anything like this. Zero comprehension. So the end result was a big fat fail.
Which meant that in my fourth and final year of studies, having spent the third year living in France and (ahem) perfecting my French, I had to add on an extra module to make up for this failure. Thanks second year me.
But actually, yes, thanks second year me. Because one of the options I had was to learn a new language, completing a beginners course. I chose Spanish – a language lots of girls at my school had chosen over German because it was considered ‘easy’ – I’d chosen German probably because that’s what my older sister had studied and I mainly copied her.
I figured Spanish would be a nice easy option, the fact that I spoke French and Italian would surely help. And I was right. It was super easy. All I really remember taking from that one module was being able to say ‘in the morning I get up at 9 o’clock. I passed with flying colours. Who needs business French when you can learn beginner’s Spanish?
So failure number 1 = a success. It resulted in a decent degree and (basic) knowledge of a brand new language.
Failed at…Diploma in Translation
Fast forward around 5 years. I had spent two years after university living in Paris, finally perfecting that French…then returned to London, working for an international magazine company.
At first I’d enjoyed my job, but after a while felt something was missing. I’d always thought working as a translator would be a fantastic job, so I decided to do a diploma in French to English translation. Maybe it would result in a career move, if nothing else I’d get to study more of my beloved French and get really, really good.
Once a week I’d attend a 2-hour class after work – submitting translations on all sorts of topics and then going through them together. It was brutal – ‘good enough’ didn’t really cut it. You had to really really understand the French to convey the meaning correctly, and sometimes it just seemed impossible.
However, I was confident. I enjoyed the classes and thought that working hard might be enough. The course leader warned us that the exam was extremely tough, that the pass rate was minuscule (30% maybe?), and gave us the pricing for retaking it a year later.
Well – no big surprise, I failed. It was disappointing, there’s always the hope you’ll be one of the lucky ones. But, I’d always known failure was likely, and therefore considered retaking in a year’s time.
I remember speaking to my parents about it, about the expense and whether or not it was worth it. And my Dad said to me, ‘what about concentrating on learning another language instead, what about your Spanish?’
Reader, my Dad’s a clever man.
Funnily enough, this all tied in with the break-up of a short-lived relationship with an illustrator I quite liked, who boasted that he’d learned Spanish at a local adult education centre for free, and that he could rap Do The Bartman in Spanish. I’d always been jealous, not of the rap, but of the fact he’d learned enough Spanish to impress someone with.
And I’ve always thought the best thing to do after a break-up is to throw yourself into making yourself even more fabulous, that’ll show him (even if you know you’ll never see him again).
So the thought of improving my Spanish, in maybe getting really good, as good as my French, was a very appealing idea. And I’m a bit of a swot, I love studying. Nothing much makes me happier than going to an adult education class.
Didn’t fail…GCSE Spanish
So I signed up for a course in GCSE Spanish at an adult education centre in Holborn. I loved it. The first lesson I wondered what the hell I was doing. Our lovely teacher was Venezuelan with a strong accent, and I don’t think I understood one thing she said. From all the nervous tittering from my classmates, I knew we were in the same boat.
Over time we started to understand her, and improve. By the end of the course not only had I had a fling with a bad boy French dude, but I’d got an A* in GCSE Spanish.
So there we go, two failures, which resulted in me obtaining a GCSE in Spanish, and very mediocre fluency. Is this really a success story, you might well ask?
Well – fast forward maybe 10 more years, and here I am living in Valencia. I finally left the magazine company, did some translation work on the side anyway (take that, failed diploma). I got a new job working remotely, started up a coaching business, and moved to Valencia. I’d always wanted to live abroad again after Paris, and something magical drew me to Valencia. My Spanish is in no way perfect, but it’s getting pretty fluent.
Failing a business French module and a diploma in translation are of course, small pieces in a bigger overall puzzle of how things have turned out. But no doubt, the opportunity to learn Spanish played a part in shaping my decisions and future. And that’s something I’m grateful for.
If you’d like to try a coaching session with me, send me a message on LinkedIn or at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info and details.
Written during Writers’ Hour. Join me on the next one.