Theresa May’s final days in office are a lesson in learning from failure

What’s the meaning of this?
What’s the meaning of this?
Image: Reuters/Stefan Wermuth
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If you’re having a bad week at work, consider Theresa May.

The British prime minister has three days left in office, after last month announcing that she will step down to make way for a new leader of the Conservative party (and by extension, the country). In renouncing the job, May has had to admit that she has failed in the task she set herself, namely to oversee a smooth exit—or, indeed, any sort of exit—of the UK from the European Union. A state visit by Donald Trump, who has snubbed May and undermined her efforts to broker a Brexit deal, coincides with her last days in a job that constitutes the highest achievement of a British politician.

It is, unquestionably, a career nadir.

We’re used to hearing about the positive results of failure. Parents are encouraged to let their children fail in order to learn, and Silicon Valley sings the mantra that failing and iterating is the best path to success. But what do you do when a huge project, or even your life’s work, crumbles to dust? Is there really anything to be learned from epic failure, the kind that feels too painful to bear but must somehow be endured? And if you have a public profile, the sort of failure that is dissected in real-time?

The answer is yes, but it isn’t easy.

Small failures that we all endure at work—a poor review, a missed promotion, an idea that didn’t work out—are relatively easy to turn to the good. We can’t learn to be better at our work without adversity, and setbacks will simultaneously give us information and make us more determined. While many young people are taught to strive for excellence, it’s the striving that parents and teachers are, increasingly, being told to reward, not the reaching of particular goals. As we grow older, and fail more, we become more level-headed about what each incremental failure means—that is, not much in the grand scheme of things.

Failing can even be fun, giving us a chance to commune, gently to mock ourselves and each other, and in so doing to celebrate effort, silliness, and the comedy inherent in not being perfect.

But failing big, as Theresa May has failed, isn’t fun. It’s not the kind of misstep that leads to a quick and interesting “pivot.” It’s a drawn-out, public, large-scale, exhausting failure. It’s not hard to imagine May going to sleep on the night of June 7th, her last day in the job she has been striving for most of her adult life, and sleeping a long, dreamless, sleep. Perhaps she wakes in the morning to a split-second of peace and then that feeling, which those of us who have failed big will recognize: The heavy weight of a future clouded in failure, gloom as far as the eye can see.

The big one

Grand failure is rare. That makes it special, in that it removes the possibility of a goal-oriented response. May cannot just “try again.” And in making sense of the effort she’s expended, and the lack of return she’s seen as a result, she’ll be forced to think deeply about what her work, fundamentally, means to her.

Meaning, argues Gianpiero Petriglieri, a professor of organizational behavior at Insead business school, is the bedrock of happiness at work. Humans have a deep need to understand the “why” behind external events, underpinning their own and others’ actions. Many of us seek the key to the meaning of our lives through work. Validation of our work feels, therefore, like validation of our very reason for being.

But when we fail, we have only the meaning, and not the validation, to fall back on. Failure is bitter, but it’s a chance to connect to the “because” that drives us. Great success—fame, for example—can mask that. Failure forces us to dig deep, to find that meaning, and reconnect with it.

In 2016, I had what still feels like my greatest failure as a writer: A novel into which I’d poured my creative energy was rejected for publication, thousands of hours of thought and work seemingly negated in a matter of days. In the weeks and months that followed, I had to have a long, painful conversation with myself: Was it writing that I loved and wanted to pursue, or was it acclaim? Was it crafting the best work I could, or was it basking in the admiration of a wide audience?

Of course, an audience—or a country to run, or a business to lead—is a conduit to communicate your ideas. But it doesn’t necessarily make you better at delivering them. What makes you better, arguably, is having to do the work, regardless of the reward.

Ursula K. Le Guin, the acclaimed fantasy writer who died in 2018, has some of the most inspiring words about seeing one’s whole career, from birth to death, not as a series of steps up to a high point, but as a gradual accumulation. In Steering the Craft, her 1998 guide for storytellers, she writes:

To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit. To learn to make something well can take your whole life. It’s worth it.

This maxim is applicable to any kind of endeavor, whether it’s illustrating a children’s book or building a business. As an author, I have to constantly remind myself that my ultimate goal is not to craft a bestseller, but to write well. Acclaim will help me reach an audience, but only I am in control of what I create. (I’ve since written another novel, not yet submitted for publication.)

The little things

There’s another aspect to professional failure that sounds trite but is truly powerful: It makes you grateful for what you have. That could be a supportive partner, physical health, or a sense of connection with the natural world. May was much mocked for recalling running “through fields of wheat” when asked about her youthful transgressions; to my mind, that shows a pretty healthy appreciation for small joys.

The pain of public failure is intense. The rewards for surmounting it are subtle and internal. Neither a true sense of purpose, nor the ability to take joy in a walk, will make headlines. But they will make you happy.