Why We Need To Rethink Our Ideas About ‘Success’ and ‘Failure’
The Debrief: 'We are constantly fed images and ideas of what society considers to be successful but, sometimes, you can learn more when things don't go to plan'
In late summer 2016 I lost what I thought was the love of my life. Thankfully, no one died. Nor was I dumped or dramatically ditched at the altar.
No. I closed my first ever business, a restaurant that I had opened with friends in 2013 and since fallen truly, madly and deeply for.
The decision to close was not an easy one. The restaurant had become very well loved, but impossible to maintain. Rising rent, overheads, staffing issues and tricky business partners meant that there came a point after four roller-coaster years that something had to give. I had to get off. I felt sick at the thought of it and I was dizzy for a long while afterwards. I desperately wanted at the time to find some strength to believe that if I kept giving it my all, all of the problems would disappear, but eventually, even positive thinking had to make way for a real solution to a very real problem.
I wasn’t alone in experiencing this loss and I happen to be in business with my partner who was also hit hard by it. However, I still felt very alone in the way that I responded to suddenly being out of work, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was ten steps back from where I thought I would be.
When we closed Rita’s, I lost something that had consumed the formative part of my 20’s. It had challenged my ability to maintain key friendships, to be present at birthdays, to be available for long phone calls and often, to risk a hangover on my day off in case someone called in sick. I had not given much thought to my great life plan because I was young and jumping hurdles daily; from the usual restaurant stuff – ‘where’s the fruit delivery’? ‘What’s new on the menu’? ‘Why is the wifi not working’? To the somewhat more terrifying, ‘how are we going to pay wages this month’?
Nurturing my business, my team and my guests was everything, it was hard and, at times, I wondered if I was capable of it. I would have done anything to keep this thing that I had created alive, to see something I had put into the world grow, and gain friends, and be loved.
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When we closed our doors last August, I thought we were supposed to feel like we had failed and, for a time, I did. The invitations to hot restaurant openings stopped coming, as did the Instagram likes and the high fives from my industry peers.
I realised then that I was looking too much at the end result and not enough at the process, consumed by shame and jealous of everyone who had a place of their own, like I once did. I was a keen supporter of young food businesses, a mentor to many, paying forward my experience and for a tiny moment, I felt like I couldn’t be happy for anyone who was doing well.
The blame for this, I believe, lies partly with social media. Until I unfollowed them in an act of liberation, my feed was full of people demonstrating ultimate success, the house they bought, the car, the holiday, the clothes, everything but context.
There’s a pattern, which so many Instagram accounts conform to, of disguising the sometimes very difficult journey to perceived success with a focus on the end result instead. I'm 21 and I killing it’ is hard to swallow from a distance when you’re 28 and just trying your damn best. The very un-Instagrammable truth is that there’s no real knowing how or why people achieve success and, more to the point, to what extent they are actually ‘killing it’ or by whose standards.
Try as I did to mourn Rita’s at 175 Mare Street in East London, over time I couldn’t help but feel waves of immense pride. The legacy of what we had created meant so much to so many people. Our ex-staff were thriving, and strangers slid into my DM’s telling how much they missed it.
I started to rethink what I considered to be success and failure. This line from Michelle Obama helped. ‘Failure is part of (the) process. You just learn to pick yourself up. And the quicker and more resilient you become, the better you are’.
Being more open about the fact that things had gone wrong took the sting of the initial stigma of failing away. People ‘fail’ by conventional standards all the time, but I thought a lot about the idea that if you don’t try, you’re automatically failing by not giving it a go. Taking the initial risk is a success in its own right.
I am not particularly academic, and I’m not what you would describe as ‘from money’. The smart thing for someone like me to have done would have been to pick a clear cut career and work my way up in a safe, secure environment. I would have been rewarded with a reliable pay check and a pension. But, for me, there were no doubts about leaving my restaurant marketing job at 24 to pursue what was to become Rita’s. There’s no denying it was a risk that could potentially derail my trajectory to the conventional success expected of me, but, instead, it offered up a wealth of experience that 24-year-old me could but have dreamt of.
There is a beautiful thing that happens when you merge the naivety of youth with the tenacity that also comes with it. I’m talking about the thrill that comes with putting yourself out into the world. Some people will never be able to explore that, either as a result of disapproving parents, or their own fear of failure. There are so many pre-determined ideas of what one should achieve in the decade following your 20th birthday and increasingly these so called targets seem more and more unrealistic, especially in a city like London.
There is much said about the perpetuity of youth as an epidemic amongst our generation, that we’re refusing to grow up. We aren’t buying houses, we aren’t having kids, we aren’t getting married. We’re still doing shots at The Alibi on a Monday at the grand old age of 32. Oopsie. Soz. Some of this is done through choice but, let’s face it, so much of it is by virtue of the very unfortunate economic circumstances we’ve inherited.
The idea of conscious vulnerability is something that has become very present in my mind since I took the course Feminist Business School curated by Jennifer Armbrust in January of this year (a perk of reclaiming 60+ hours of my week is that courses now seem like a totally normal legit thing to do).
Within the course discussions, I came across the idea that vulnerability can be a conduit for growth, and progress. In one of Jen’s talks, ‘Proposals for a feminine economy’ she says ‘fluidity and growth need to be a constituent of my work and life for me to happy'. This stuck with me and helped me reassess my life post- Rita’s. All is not lost, we have a fantastic brand and an impenetrable reputation. The business skills I possess now, having worked on other projects outside of my comfort zone far outweigh those I had a year ago and I am expanding my skill set without any limitations.
I’ve embraced my vulnerability and converted it into power to explore whatever I want which so far includes Jens course, a stint in a Michelin starred kitchen, taking on two start up brand clients, pitching a cookbook, baking, having at least one coffee meeting a week with an almost-stranger that I think is cool or interesting and re-writing the Rita’s business plan to be bigger, and even more ambitious than I would have dared to before.
We are constantly fed images and ideas of what society considers to be success, along with a very helpful timeline of deadlines for when each (job, partner, house, kid) should be achieved in order to become a my ‘shit is sorted’ kind of person, but those maxims simply do not exist for everyone. And, newsflash, they were all invented by someone for whom they worked, that doesn’t mean they have to work for you!
I often look back on the closure of Rita’s as the break down of a long-term relationship and wonder what would have happened if we had stayed together. Would I have grown? Would I have been forced to step out of the exhausting, but familiar zone I created for myself? Would I have taken a step back and looked at what else it is that I might want to achieve? Could I consider starting a family whilst working 60 hours a week on a basic salary? Could I manage to dodge the green chilli mac and cheese in order to keep my physique as I hit 30?
I have a few friends who followed a fairly traditional route into work. They do well paid, creative work that I sometimes envy because it is measurable. A certain title means a certain salary and a certain salary defines where you plot yourself on the map of contentment. Almost all of those people are now entering their fourth decade of life on Earth wanting more, and I feel their frustration.
Sure, the money in the bank might help but it is incredibly hard to find power in giving up security to pursue a dream when all around you everyone is sticking to the plan.
For me, that challenge doesn’t exist. I’m ready for the next thing, and the next after that and as I grow older my needs change as well as my motivations. I’m growing into myself as opposed to looking back.
I’ll end with this: I turned 30 last month with a compost heap of debt, having never viewed a home that I might buy, with a pay as you go phone, a dead laptop, working on the future of Rita’s but, also, as a freelancer for food and drink brands that I love, meeting great people, an increased sense of mental stability and connection in my relationship, working on collaborations, finding time for yoga five times a week and having completed this, my first writing assignment.
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