I am a bit of a podcast junkie*. A favourite is How to Fail with Elizabeth Day. For uninitiated among you, it’s “a podcast that celebrates the things that haven’t gone right. Every week, a new interviewee explores what their failures taught them about how to succeed better.” Taking a leaf out of Elizabeth’s book, here are the failures that have been most instructive in my life.
1. I wasn’t made a prefect
Not being made a prefect aged 17 was probably my first real “lesson” in life. It was almost as though my housemistress knew this would be the case as, while consoling me, she carefully suggested that it may have had something to do with my tendency to come across as intimidating to younger pupils. I can trace my desire to really know myself, and to be as empathic as possible, to this moment (spoiler alert – both are still Work In Progress).
2. The team I wanted to qualify into at A&O didn’t want me
As a trainee at A&O, my “priority seat” was the private equity team. I loved my time there, but it transpired that I hadn’t made as much of an impression work-wise as a couple of other trainees in my intake, meaning there was no room for me on qualification. There followed a few panicky weeks as I contemplated being out of a job.
Rather than approach any of the other teams I had sat with during my training contract, I went to see a partner in another corporate team for whom I had done a bit of work. She hadn’t advertised an NQ vacancy, but I was able to persuade her to take me on. My initial rejection showed me that my ability to build relationships was going to be just as important in my career as my legal skills.
3. I really messed up the “Seat Plan”
The first time I left law (at 2 years’ PQE), it was to become A&O’s HR Manager for Trainees. One of my responsibilities was to work out how the trainees would move around the firm during their training contract, balancing the trainees’ wishes with the business’s needs. There were 240 of them, and there was some sort of seat rotation every 3 months. The “Seat Plan” was a monster spreadsheet, one which I felt supremely confident of being able to manipulate and keep everyone happy. But I hadn’t planned forward carefully enough – after about 6 months in the job, I realised late one Friday afternoon that there was no way that the Litigation department was going to be able to accommodate every trainee in the September 2005 intake who had not yet obtained contentious experience (a core component of a solicitor’s training) before they were due to qualify.
I was desperate to unburden myself to the Training Principal but had to wait a whole weekend to do so (I have a strong recollection of being at a concert in the Barbican and failing to enjoy any moment of the performance, so strong was my feeling of dread). The Training Principal was brilliant. We didn’t focus on the “mistake” at all, just on how we were going to fix it – I marvelled at her “can-do” attitude. Within a few weeks, we had developed with an external provider a course to teach the core aspects of contentious work which, coupled with practical pro bono experience at a legal advice centre, would satisfy the regulator that the requisite experience had been gained. Many of the transaction-focused trainees were delighted with this solution – and A&O still provides a litigation course to this day.
4. Making mistakes in legal documents
One of the most common areas for development for junior lawyers is attention to detail. However bright and enthusiastic they are, the level of care required to ensure that documents are error-free is always greater than they imagine. Unfortunately, the surest way to improve is if their lack of attention ends up causing a problem. Rarely are these problems insurmountable, and even in the most serious of cases, no one is going to die. But so acute is the desire to never again experience those feelings of incompetence and fear of reproach, that over time most lawyers manage to up their game. This was my experience – but even as a partner, my work was not 100% error-free. However, by then, I had a better sense of perspective, and was usually able to tell a good story and down-play the mistake.
5. Failing to parent guilt-free
My belief in the importance of failure extends to my kids. It’s not in my nature to try and shield them from disappointment; I also remind myself frequently of one of my favourite mantras (“life is a marathon, not a sprint”) – they have quite literally years to achieve their potential. I have always been a full-time working mother and feel confident that our family dynamic and logistical arrangements mean that the time I spend away from home on business will not have a detrimental impact on my boys. In essence, I very much subscribe to the Dereck Winnicott “good enough” style of parenting.
Not suffering from parental guilt is something that I aspire to, and you could be forgiven for thinking that the attitude I describe above is evidence of “job done”. Unfortunately not. I let my older boy give up his piano lessons. I never do arts and crafts. My younger boy is slow to read and write. And don’t get me started on the amount of Fortnite they play.
Will they be ok in the long run? Of course they will. Does that prevent me from feeling guilty? Fat chance. But maybe that’s precisely what ensures I remain (just about) “good enough”.
6. Failure to establish a meditation practice
I have been interested in meditation for about 10 years. My introduction to the practice of sitting still and noticing my thoughts was via a Scandinavian form of meditation called Acem. Originally, I was looking for help to reduce stress while I was trying to fall pregnant. Despite believing the afficionados when they said that regular, sustained practice can bring many benefits, I stopped when my first son was born. Fast-forward 4 years: I’m back in Cardiff and I feel that my life is sufficiently “sorted” to be able to cope with a regular meditation practice. I was keen to meditate with others, and as Acem had not made it as far as South Wales, I opted for a mindfulness practice instead. I completed the standard 8-week introduction to mindfulness course and kept going – for a while. But then I stopped. And then I started. And then stopped again. I tried different apps (Headspace, Calm, Waking Up, Insight Timer); I tried different times of day; I even persuaded my husband to learn, thinking that we might spur each other on. But as I stand today, I still don’t have a regular meditation practice – despite really wanting one, and still being a believer: I know from personal experience that meditation makes me less stressed, more self-aware and less likely to get caught up in negative thoughts.
I am going to conclude by sharing one more thing with you. I am hereby setting myself the goal of a daily 10-minute meditation practice, and you can hold me accountable to that. According to James Clear, it takes on average 66 days to develop a new habit – so you can expect an update from me on this on 21st January 2021!
* Other current favourite podcasts include: Eat Sleep Work Repeat (probably the podcast I’ve recommended more than any other to people interested in the future of work); Techish (“a podcast about the intersection of tech, pop culture and life”); Squiggly Careers (fit to bursting with great practical advice about how to take control of your career); and How do you cope? with Elis and John (so important to hear men discussing life’s struggles – and I would encourage all the men reading this to listen to the episode with Emma Barnett talking about life with endometriosis).