July 15, 2016

Andy Murray

Andy Murray

Source: Bigstock

“€œFailing’s not terrible,”€ said Andy Murray after winning his second Wimbledon final. “€œIt’s okay provided you”€™ve given your best. You have to not be afraid of failing, learn from the losses.”€ He has earned the right to say so, for he has had much experience of failure, enough”€”more than enough”€”defeats in the final of the four Slam tournaments to have broken a lesser man. Of course, failure is inevitably the lot of most players. One hundred and twenty-eight start in the first round and only one man is left standing at the end. But this is a crude and unrealistic way of looking at it. For many, getting through one or two rounds is success. It’s when you have the summit in sight that failure hurts most. Before this past Sunday, Murray had been in ten Slam finals and lost eight of them. He had stretched out his hand toward the Cup and found it beyond his reach. He was branded by some as a serial loser, but he kept going. It’s how you treat failure that matters. Murray kept growing, working hard, improving his game.

Failure in any walk of life can teach you more than success. This is what Samuel Beckett meant when he said: “€œFail again. Fail better.”€ Stan Wawrinka, Swiss winner of both the Australian and French titles, has Beckett’s words tattooed on his forearm. Wawrinka has inevitably played his career in the shadow of Roger Federer, and he has known many failures. “€œLosing is a fact of life,”€ he says. “€œNobody wins all the time. The question, then, is how do you react to defeat? Do you become demotivated or defensive? Or do you learn from it?”€ Wawrinka chose to learn. Michael Jordan agrees with him. “€œI”€™ve failed over and over and over again,”€ he says, “€œand that’s why I succeed.”€ So that’s the lesson. When you fail, you have choices: You can run away. You can shrug your shoulders and say, philosophically, “€œThat’s life,”€ which, in terms of personal happiness, may not actually be a bad response. Or you can vow to improve, and work hard to do so.

“€œFailure in any walk of life can teach you more than success.”€

Murray is a Scot. I don”€™t know how it is in Scottish schools now, but in my day we were brought up on the story of Bruce and the spider. It went like this: Robert the Bruce was crowned King of Scots in 1306 at a low point in the Wars of Independence. Scotland was under English occupation. Bruce was defeated in early battles. His position was desperate. He had to go into hiding, beyond Scotland, on an island off the Irish coast, and was reduced to living in a cave. One day he saw a spider trying to build a web. It failed to do so several times, falling repeatedly to the ground. But it didn”€™t lose heart. It always got up and resumed its task, until eventually it had constructed a beautiful fly-catching web. Bruce took the message: The test is how you respond to failure. It makes you stronger if you learn from it, learn from your mistakes, as the spider did.

The story of Bruce and the spider is doubtless a myth, but like all good myths it encapsulates a truth. Bruce refused to yield to the temptation of surrender or despair. Instead he worked like the spider, constructed his own English-catching web, and achieved his goal: Scotland’s survival as an independent sovereign nation-state.

Half a century or more ago, the historian and minor politician Robert Rhodes James caused considerable offense when he wrote a biography of Winston Churchill with the subtitle “€œA Study in Failure.”€ The offense was understandable, but only if you didn”€™t read the remainder of the subtitle, “€œ1900″€“1939.”€ Rhodes James was making the point that if Churchill had died before 1940, historians would have judged him a failure, a politician who, for all his gifts, had never reached the top of what Disraeli called “€œthe greasy pole,”€ and whose record in various departments of state was at best patchy. 1940 changed everything.

There’s another lesson to be learned from Churchill’s story, one applicable to politicians today. Many give up early”€”too early indeed”€”after a single failure to achieve their ambitions. In Britain, prime ministers and party leaders tend to walk away when they have lost an election. They go off”€”to retirement in the House of Lords or to earn money as company directors or consultants or on the lucrative speech-making circuit. They behave like wimps, running away after a single failure, the experience of which might have made them better leaders in the future. Unlike them, Churchill stuck around. So there he was, still in the House of Commons, toughened by failure after ten years out of office, ready to take over when the Chamberlain government foundered in 1940.

Two other national leaders offer the same lesson, that failure can strengthen you. In 1946, Charles de Gaulle walked away, having failed to achieve the constitutional reform he thought necessary for France. He attempted a comeback three years later, forming his own party, the Rassemblement du Peuple Francais (RPF). After some initial success, it collapsed in utter failure. De Gaulle retired to his country home to write his war memoirs. Most people thought he was finished. But in 1958, when crisis in Algeria brought the Fourth Republic to its knees and threatened civil war, France turned to de Gaulle again. He was now a wiser man and a more adroit politician, one who had learned from his mistakes. He achieved the reform he had long advocated. His Fifth Republic still endures. Since the revolution of 1789, only one regime”€”the Third Republic (1871″€“1940)”€”has lasted in France longer than de Gaulle’s creation.


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