How to fail upwards – and why it’s key to your success

As Charlotte Philby’s debut novel is published – nine years after her first manuscript was rejected by countless agents – she reflects on the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity and why failing is so much a part of the journey for many successful women

(Image credit: Roo Lewis)

As Charlotte Philby’s debut novel is published – nine years after her first manuscript was rejected by countless agents – she reflects on the importance of perseverance in the face of adversity and why failing is so much a part of the journey for many successful women

‘You are just so bloody accomplished!’ a friend said while scanning through the bio of my new novel, as testimony to the fact that I am a highly competent human being. It was all I could do not to howl with laughter. Because what now, neatly pulled together on that page, reads as a perfectly plotted journey on the road to becoming a published novelist, at each interchange has felt like an ever-mounting pile-up of my failures.

What that bio doesn’t include is the novel I wrote eight years ago, which I poured my heart and sleep-deprived soul into while on my first maternity leave and then had rejected by no less than seven agents. It doesn’t mention the crappy bit-jobs I’ve taken between roles to fund writing, nor the crippling self-doubt that culminated in several emotional breakdowns along the way.

The pressure to know oneself and one’s dreams, and to have fulfilled them by a certain stage in life can be crippling. I clearly remember a friend telling me how relieved she had been to leave behind her twenties, how it had taken having a baby and turning 30 to understand who she was. Later, weeping to my husband, I said, ‘But I’m 34 and have three kids and still I have no idea who I am!’ As far as I was concerned, my life was in free-fall. This was the story I told myself night after sleepless night, not knowing how it would end.

It was impossible to imagine then that two years later I would have one novel published and two in the pipeline. Having spent eight years as an intern-turned-features assistant-turned-writer-turned-editor-turned-reporter-turned-columnist at a national newspaper, I left not long after my second baby was born. I had been struggling since finding myself catapulted into the baffling landscape of surprise motherhood at the age of 27, while in the throes of a career I loved but which no longer worked for me (I doff my hat to those who can successfully combine hands-on parenthood and being an effective news reporter).

Running my own business, I decided, was the answer. And so in 2014, while on my second maternity leave, I created a new parenting platform for mothers. This was going to be my success story! And yet, after two years (and a third baby), I was forced to pull the plug on that, too. The reality was that the multiple and seemingly endless pressures of running a business while trying to raise three young kids without proper childcare (which the earnings of the business couldn’t afford us) made it impossible to justify, financially and emotionally.

The day I walked away from my business, I walked the streets of central London in a state of shock. In a deeply surreal moment, I stumbled on a Marie Curie cake sale in a random church hall and sat at a table amid chattering old ladies, and wept. I had hit rock bottom – albeit a rock bottom with flapjacks. The sense of failure was all-consuming, yet there was more than a flutter of liberation, too. On reflection, I sensed it already – the crack that had opened up, allowing in new light.

As executive coach Phanella Mayall Fine says, sometimes you have to discover what isn’t working before you find what does. ‘I trained as a lawyer and a fund manager before requalifying as a coach,’ she says. ‘I can choose to see those years of training as wasted time, or I can acknowledge them as fundamental to my ability to coach now… The path to success tends not to be linear, particularly for women. Few of my clients are living the vision of success they had at the outset of their careers. Lives have shaped careers, and events that seemed to be failures (a redundancy, for example) have taken careers in new, brilliant directions.’

Overcoming adversity is par for the course in getting somewhere worth being, says Philip Corr, professor of psychology at City University. ‘Success is born of failure,’ he says. ‘It is easy not to fail: simply do nothing of significance. Failure is a sign of trying and this can lead to learning new ways of succeeding. All “successful” people have a history of failure – people who do not fail have a history of doing nothing.’

Yet, while serving as inspiration, stories like mine can also seem daunting. For me, getting to where I wanted to be (and even realising where that was) has been an ongoing process of understanding when something wasn’t working and then walking away, even if that felt painful. My mum likes to tell me that as soon as I’m getting good at something, I give it up, as if that is a slight of character. And yet, rather than feeling shame for my refusal to pursue something that I know in my gut isn’t working, I pride myself on having the strength to constantly reassess what I want and what I’m doing, and subsequently redirect my energy. Life is not always straightforward – it is a process of reassessment, to understand the way forward; to redress the balance.

In many ways, the impact of what I regarded as hitting rock bottom enabled me to think about what I wanted from life – and that was to write fiction. One afternoon, after an emotional lunch with a friend in which we shared a mutual yearning to run away from the pressures of our own lives, I started to think about what it would take to push a young mother to walk out on her children. I’d spent a lot of time thinking about my grandfather, the spy Kim Philby who duped and ultimately betrayed not just his country but his wife and five children, and when I transposed the idea of the woman walking out on her life on to my yearning to write a stylish spy novel, I had the formula for my book.

Billed as ‘The Night Manager set in a woman’s world’, The Most Difficult Thing is a modern domestic suspense thriller set between London, Greece and the Maldives, which opens with Anna, a mother of three-year-old twins walking out on her children and her seemingly perfect life as a magazine editor, forever. Through the novel –partially based on a true crime and told by two female protagonists –we’re forced to question the nature of betrayal and what we’d sacrifice to uncover the truth.

A key part of finally writing the book I wanted to write, was, I think, failing at so many other things. This process allowed me to really know myself, and to have confidence in my own voice. That confidence pushed me through when the writing process threatened to subsume me.

What I’ve learned, in the past year since landing the book deal I’ve been working towards for nine years, is that human capacity is not infinite and you have to make space to flourish. When my first book deal was just for one book, I panicked, but after persevering and holding tight, I’ve since sold two more novels to the same publisher. The second one, A Duplicitous Life – which moves between the stories of two women whose lives mysteriously interconnect – is a reworking of that eight-year-old much-rejected manuscript. It’s proof that nothing is ever really wasted. Sometimes, you just need to bide your time, to know when the universe (or your gut) is telling you to try something else – and when it is telling you to carry on.

The Most Difficult Thing is published on 11 July by Borough Press

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