It was 1975. The year the Vietnam war ended. The year the UK chose its first woman prime minister. It was a time of unrest and depression with interest rates and unemployment skyrocketing around the world. Everything seemed to have a slight tinge of brown and orange.
I was two years old, sitting in a hospital waiting room as I went to see my new baby brother with my dad. Thankfully, I was oblivious to the world’s troubles (a trait I sometimes wish I’d continued into adulthood). I wasn’t at all concerned. I sat there doing what I loved: drawing.
Throughout my life, drawing has been the one thing that I return to time and again. It’s always been there. Familiar strokes of a pencil. The right shade of gray. The smell of fresh pencil shavings. The dulling of my skin from graphite dust. Drawing with pencils is a sensory affair for me.
But, as school entered my life, drawing became—like writing—a tool to convey information. The pleasure I drew from it was still there but slowly diminished, replaced by writing, learning, socializing, and growing—all of which get in the way of that solitary, absorbing endeavor. Drawing was reduced to something simply practical: creating a diagram, or drawing a plan. Whereas once the act of drawing had brought happiness or contentment, now the end result was all that brought a sort of satisfaction—and a shallow one, at that.
Fast forward to 1991. I was eighteen years old and had just completed two years pursuing my goal to become a forensic scientist. The prerequisites for a degree in biology in the UK were three science subjects, studied for two years. I needed top marks to get into my university of choice. Results day came, and I knew in my heart what the news would be: I’d failed all three. Not just a respectable “Oh, never mind, you tried your best” failing, but a monumental, embarrassing, public flunking. A complete and utter washout. My parents had sent me to a private summer camp before the exams so I could receive intensive tutoring—all now wasted time and money. My friends all passed with flying colors and ended up going to the universities of their choice, studying medicine and engineering. I stood there amidst the celebrations, tears of joy—and the stifling disappointment of my teachers—wondering what I would do next.
I wasn’t surprised. I’d taken more pleasure in drawing cell structures than learning about them. I’d devoted an incredible amount of time and care to intricate drawings of chemical processes, taking immense pride in the smallest of details. Physics, mathematics, and chemistry were completely beyond my comprehension. Instead, I’d drawn the best scientific diagrams the teacher had seen from a pupil in thirty years of teaching. At a time of failing exam after exam, a time of constantly feeling stupid amongst my peers, the act of producing the best diagram in the class was a pure moment of happiness and pride.
So what do you do when you’ve completely failed and you don’t have any options? Which way do you turn when it becomes all too obvious that what you’ve been working toward for two years is just not possible? My choice was clear. I returned to what I knew I should have been doing all along: drawing.
I took a two-year course in art and design and completed it in one year. I attended art classes around the clock, had a permanent desk in the art rooms, and very quickly ended up on first-name terms with the teachers. For all the hard work, and with the constant underlying smell of pencil shavings, this felt more like home to me. I went on to college and then university, obtaining a first-class honors degree in typographic design. I met my wife. I worked as a designer and ended up running my own studio where I’m in the very fortunate position to work with some of the most talented people in the industry on projects that I feel make a difference. I travel and speak about what I do and am thankful I’ve made a dent in an industry in which I can do all of that. I do it all because I belong here, and all of this can be traced back to one morning in August in 1991 where the rug was quickly yanked from under my feet. One moment of complete devastating failure.
The bigger the failure, the worse it is and the worse you feel. There are people all around you who will make you feel that failing is bad. I learned that failure is necessary every day. And a big, catastrophic failure can be your best moment. A moment when you feel you have nothing more to lose. A moment that can be life changing.
Catastrophic failure may not be desirable, but without it, the kind of success that feels right in your bones is not possible because your successes—and, at times, your character—are defined by your failures and your responses to them. The bigger the screw-up, the better it feels when you turn it around.
So, go ahead; screw up. It’ll be the making of you.