Failure and the God Complex
I started a garden this year, from seed. I was promised it would bring the bees. The area was weedy and unloved when we moved to our house, our third in Adelaide. The smallest house, the smallest garden and the most desolate of a garden.
During COVID I planted these seeds that, once grew, the flowers would attract the bees. I dreamt of a humming, utopic, bee-friendly garden—an overgrown space wild with honey bee pollinators. I hoped they’d take up residence nearby and my example would spur other people on to the cause of saving our declining pollinator population.
It took a while for the seeds to fully grow, but eventually they got going and soon started to flower. I was checking on them often, in and out — as COVID had all but wiped out my work — waiting and watching patiently for the bees to come.
I waited. I watched.
And I waited.
I watched the flowers bloom and fade over time.
And I waited still.
The truth is that I didn’t see honey bees around these flowers lovingly nurtured from seed. And I felt like a failure. I had failed our pollinators. I had failed the environment. And if I couldn’t even attract them in this small space garden, what hope did I have having any impact on a larger scale?
It’s a word nobody—except purportedly those in Silicon Valley—likes to hear, let alone digest as a personal ‘accomplishment’. What is failure? Examining one’s own failure is a humbling exercise. Failure, defined simply, is as a lack of success. Where better to get educated on the correlation between failure and success than TED talks? Search failure and you get a myriad of aspirational content on celebrating failure. I watched it all, but one talk title really grabbed me: Trial, error and the God Complex.
Sounds like me. And my gardening style.
Spoiler alert – the God Complex is not a virtue. I guess ‘complex’ gives that away. Speaking at TEDGlobal in 2011, Economist Tim Harford describes the God Complex as “an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solution”. Another spoiler – you’re usually not.
“Think about what this leaves out”, Hartford challenges. The world is simply too complex to have the one and only answer. Had I failed because this wasn’t the answer?
Simon Sinek also talks about success. In his Q&A titled How do you measure success?, his opening line really got me; “the metrics that we have are not wrong, they’re just incomplete.”
Am I viewing outcomes and success through narrow, individualistic and highly idealistic notions of what success should look like? If that is the case, my success metrics have been built on narrow parameters, to the exclusion of zooming out and looking from the peripheries, where what we are trying to achieve may have made an equally positive, measurable — and as important — impact.
How many times do we do this in our personal and professional life—not see the forest for the trees? As a graphic designer running a business, it’s so easy to be disappointed when I’ve not hit that narrow focused, rose-coloured glass view of how things should be, how many clients I should have, how much work I should be creating, and dwelling on that as a failure rather than seeing (and celebrating) the wins that have come from the steps taken to achieve the goal.
Pondering my garden losses one day something clicked. There was life in the garden. Sure, not the coveted honey bees but little insects everywhere: hover flies, ants, lady beetles. We went from a sand pit covered in weeds with next to no insect life around to creating a space that had a diverse range of insect-friendly flowers of various colours and heights. And in that moment I realised that this wasn’t failure, it was that the measurement for my success was off. It wasn’t about whether there were only bees on my flowers, it was about improving an area to the benefit of all life- wild and human. This self-flagellation also neglected one hugely important aspect that I had completely overlooked. The process of doing brought me joy and purpose during a year that has had so many question theirs.
I saw an Australian native blue-bandied bee grace our flowers yesterday. I un-ashamedly did a happy dance.