How Overcoming the Fear of Failure May Help Us Reduce Suicide

After a suicide almost everyone will ask: Why did they do it?

There can be a multitude of reasons: psychosis, losing hope, terror from a panic attack and many others. There is one cause of suicide that is often not discussed — failure. Research suggests that many suicides are the result of a same-day crisis. A same day crisis occurs when a person is happy and well at the start of the day, then they get some unexpected bad news, they are told they have been fired from a job or they experienced a relationship break up, or a public humiliation. Many of these people were OK just before they got the bad news.

When you think about the possibility of failing what feelings does it stir up? Fear, anxiety, shame or guilt? I discovered just how much of an impact failure can have on people. In 2012, I experienced the single most humiliating failure of my life.

In 2012, I tried going on “Britain’s Got Talent.” I had a magic trick I submitted and it went really well in all the rehearsals. But on the final day of filming, I was not given enough time to set up. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong, everything that could not possibly have gone wrong also went wrong. Amanda Holden was absolutely horrible about my teeth. Furthermore, she said I had no stage presence. I put on a brave face, but I was absolutely gutted. I had 3,000 people in the audience yelling “off, off off!” at me. I can’t describe how terrible I felt. As all of this was unfolding, I began to worry this would haunt me for the rest of my life. I was fully aware this would be broadcast in front of 12 million people.

At the time it aired, I was running school camps in the UK. The day after the show aired, a group of about 30 school children came in. I was hoping maybe they hadn’t seen the most popular show on TV, but they had. They asked me what happened, so I asked everyone what their talents were. One person said their talent was playing football, another said playing the piano, and another said dancing. It came to me and I said my talent was failing. Everyone laughed. Then I said, “No no, I’m serious. Anyone can fail once that requires no effort and no skill, but to have the talent of failing you need to be able to fall off the horse, get back up and try again.” No one said much at the time but afterwards, several people came up to me and said you are one of the most inspiring people we’ve ever met.

I couldn’t believe it. I made an absolute turkey of myself on national TV and they were calling me inspiring. It actually took me a long time to work out why my story had such an impact. I met a promising young man, let’s call him Fred. Fred was highly intelligent and could have had an amazing career in front of him. Yet he failed his first semester at university and then he gave up on everything in life. When I first met him, he sat at home all day doing nothing. He was so debilitated by guilt, self-doubt and shame that he couldn’t move forward. He redefined himself as being useless at everything. Fred wasn’t unique. I’ve met hundreds of people who have failed in just one area of their life then given up on everything. As I met more and more people like Fred, I started to discover why so many people wanted to hear my story.

As I said above, many suicides may be the result of a same-day crisis. I worked with a 16-year-old girl, let’s call her Emily. Emily set her heart on getting on a national sports team which was the gateway to the Olympics. She was rejected from the team. Emily believed her life was ruined and consequently tried to end her life. Fortunately, she did not die. These stories are much more common than many people might think.

These examples show the devastating cost of failure to society. Even if it doesn’t result in suicide, failure causes us to lose so many talented and potentially successful people.

There are many programs that focus on suicide prevention. I think we need to spend more time teaching people that it is OK to fail. I share my story to tell others that failure does not need to be the end. Today, I have a great job, I got married last August, I have some great friends. Even though I failed spectacularly on national TV, the event did not ruin my life. If I had a time machine and could go back and stop myself being on “Britain’s Got Talent,” I wouldn’t. Telling my story has profoundly impacted the lives of so many; helping them to overcome their own failures. Therefore, if you want to allow people to achieve their full potential forget programs that teach success, we need to teach failure. I want to see a world where we openly share failure. If we did this we would never see another Fred, Emily or worse yet, countless others who take their lives because they cannot see a way through. Instead I want people to know failure is normal and it can be overcome. If you fail once, that does not mean your life is ruined, it is possible to recover.

I spoke at TEDx about my experience, the link can be found here.

Michael Hempseed is a highly sought after professional speaker. He has delivered more than 100 inspiring and informative seminars over the last two years, on such diverse topics as overcoming failure, mental illness and the teenage brain. Michael loves to travel, having visited over 34 countries, including Cambodia, Morocco, China, India, Brazil and many others. In addition to this he hosts a radio show called Lighthouse of Hope that helps anyone with a mental illness.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

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Getty Images photo via Marjan_Apostolovic

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