Learning From Failure

The two big memes of our entrepreneurial age are

Go big, or go home!


Ever tried? Ever failed? No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.
Samuel Beckett

Well, I've failed and now I'm heading home. Last year I applied for a place on a Master's programme at the Oxford Internet Institute. I was desperate to spend a year studying the Social Science of the Internet. It felt like it was the perfect intersection of my interests and would be an excellent springboard for the next stage in my career.

I didn't get a place.

I put together what I thought was a cracking application, but the competitive nature of the course meant that I didn't even get an interview there. I tried punching well above my weight and, unsurprisingly, did not come off victorious.

I'd love to say that I am bowed but not broken, but I'm not sure that's the case. I've got a rough few days of grieving ahead of me. This post isn't written to elicit sympathy (OK, maybe just a bit) but to tell you what I learned from failure, in the hope that it might help you.

Boasting Feels Great

The advice I got from the admissions body was "Americans boast". Every student who applies to Oxford has won an award, or scholarship, or trophy, or honour. Even if it is "Best Kept Dorm Room" - the Americans will put it on their CV. The British, by contrast, will leave a tiny line at the bottom saying winner of the Nobel Prize and given the la Légion d'honneur.

So, I wrote the most prideful CV I could. Imagine your mother trying to marry you off to a Doctor. Every little achievement I'd had was turned into a monumental success, every project I'd been involved with was world-beating, and my driving licence is spotless!

It felt fantastic. In part, it helped me to realise that I've been involved in some pretty big and important projects. I also got to see myself without all the layers of self-doubt and pettifoggery. Not only do I have a shiny new CV, I also have a clearer cut idea of what I have achieved in my life.

People Are (Quite) Nice

Initially, I didn't want to tell anyone what I was doing. I didn't want to be seen as boasting, I didn't want to be seen as a failure, I didn't want to need anyone's help. In retrospect, this was ridiculous. None of my friends would have thought less of me for trying - I know I wouldn't think any the less of them.

I also didn't take advantage of my social network as much as I should have. I asked a few close family members to proof-read my CV, statement of purpose, and writing sample. Given that I know plenty of journalists and academics, I could have asked for a lot more help. I didn't - mostly because I wanted any success to be due to my own brilliance, not due the help of others. Yeah...

I need to learn to be more open. I need to trust my friends and colleagues more.

Money Makes The World Go Round

Studying is expensive. Not only does it cost tens of thousands of pounds to study - but it's also a year without receiving a salary. My wife and I spent several months planning budgets, seeing where we were wasting money, and working out what our long-term financial goals were.

If it teaches me nothing else, this experience has really helped us quantify our spending habits and make some much needed changes to our lifestyle.

Learning Is Hard

I decided to brush up on my statistics knowledge and also to start reading more published scientific papers.

It was pleasantly surprising to see that I was still able to pass a GCSE Stats paper - and I was able to follow along with the A-Level Stats tutorials.

Reading scientific papers is tricky if you're not already immersed in the world of academia. I found them poorly formatted and often overly verbose. Of course, part of the problem is that I didn't understand a lot of what I was reading. After trying to wrap my head around this paper for a couple of hours, I began to get the inkling that an academic's life was not for me!

Differential Privacy-fs8

I don't know how kids manage to learn these days. I found myself constantly distracted by notifications, the urge to check websites, and the multitude of digital wonders I have to play with. In the end, I switched to a dedicated tablet with nothing on it but a PDF reader and with the WiFi blocked.


I was advised that I needed three references - one of which should be academic. Given that I left university over a decade ago, I decided to ignore that advice and go with three professional referees. I'm not sure if that's what lead to my rejection, but I need to learn that sometimes I just have to follow the rules.

That said, I was beyond delighted when all three agreed that, not only was the course perfect for me, but they would be happy to write references.

Experience told me that all three were busy people - and weren't necessarily conversant in what needed to be in a reference. So, I offered to write a sample reference for them. Again, this was an exercise in "anti-humility" - I had to write in the third-person about myself in the most glowing way possible. An uncomfortable but useful exercise.

Failing Hurts

I rarely compete in anything - no sports, no online video games, no high value competitions - and the reason is that I hate failing. I guess that most people don't like failing - but for me it seems to be a visceral and nauseating experience. I don't take much joy in winning either - I often feel that if I could win, the competition must not be sufficiently rigorous.

That's an unhealthy attitude. Life sometimes involves failure and, frankly, I need to grow a pair.

So, I've had a few months of anxiety which are now going to be followed by a few weeks of being grumpy and attempting to eat my body-weight in chocolate.

I'm proud of myself for trying. I'm proud that failure hasn't crushed me.
Now I need to be proud of how I move on.

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