A Little Tale of Failure, or is it?


Failure, I have come to realise, looks very different when added to with time.

Yesterday I had a realisation that what I once thought as failure was actually a massive blessing in disguise. Twenty years on, almost to the day, the memory hit me hard.

I was walking through University College Dublin and passed the admissions building. Twenty years ago, in that very same building, I had signed myself out of college. I will never forget the feelings. I was so ashamed, so embarrassed, and thought I had utterly failed, especially my parents.

I was 17 and had entered UCD with the full intention to complete an honours Science degree. My first year subjects were Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths. I had loved Biology while in school, got an A in my Leaving Cert, and somehow thought that it qualified me to sign up to all the rest of the sciences! I was mistaken, gravely so. By Christmas I was so off track I was about to fall off. I was overwhelmed, stressed, and falling far behind. I had never failed an exam in my life but I failed all my Christmas exams, except Biology. I remember getting 18% in my Chemistry exam which was returned to me covered in red corrections. I didn’t even understand the corrections. ‘What on earth was I doing? Why was I here? And why was I feeling so utterly lost?’ Mostly I remember the feelings of shame.

I knew I needed to tell my parents. I was fearing it because they had already paid my admissions fee and in leaving college it would not be reimbursed. I was so embarrassed. I don’t remember the moment I told them I wanted to leave but I do remember the response. It was filled with so much love and compassion; so much understanding. They could sense I was on the wrong track too.

The day when I had to sign out of college my father accompanied me too. He walked me up to the admissions building, took me by they hand and told me that it would all be OK, that I’ll figure it out. Afterwards, when I had signed what felt like release papers, he gave me a hug. That was that. He didn’t say much but his actions meant the world to me. He was giving me his blessing for whatever next and in those moments I knew he trusted me. I had no idea what impact this would have on my career, I was terrified and yet I was utterly relieved. I knew I would never have to sit another Chemistry exam in my life and the thought of that shifted and lifted my very being.

My strongest sense was that I needed to travel, move away from Ireland and learn on the road. Yet I had no money. So a few days after signing out of UCD, in possibly the most embarrassing career move of my life, I took a job in McDonalds. The shame radar escalated. I mopped floors. I cleaned toilets. I flipped disgusting fish cakes. I burned myself on greasy oil. I was told I did not hustle enough. I was told I need to up-sell. I hated it, I hated it so much I would cry every day, but I was determined to get out of there quickly. Three months later I had enough money to buy myself a plane ticket. I had organised a volunteer role in Tonga, South Pacific, and so, at 17, my parents, in yet another act of selfless devotion, brought me to the airport and with tears in their eyes waved me off to literally the other side of the world. The older I get the more I realise what a remarkable gesture of trust (again) it was on their part- entrusting me to the world, and to myself.


Tonga was a revelation to me. Here I found myself in the middle of the Pacific- literally and metaphorically. I spent nine months in Tonga and three in Western Samoa (which is a whole other series of blog posts), and while there a world of possibility awakened in me; indeed the world awoke in me. I became more interested in education, learning and international issues. I realised that lack of resources does not equate to lack of imagination, and that sometimes the best innovations happens on the edges, on the margins. Travel, I have found, enriches as it shakes. In the challenges I was tested and invited to see more of myself. My so called failure had indeed been a doorway.

394725156_9ae5b0779e_o I realised that had I remained in UCD I would have been utterly crushed. I got out just in time, thanks to the love and support of my parents, and to some toilet cleaning. So when I returned to Ireland I was ready to re-enter university with a deeper sense of my interests and of my callings. I entered Queen’s University in Belfast and after three years there got a scholarship to Oxford University, staying as far away from Chemistry and Physics as I could.

Walking through UCD yesterday I was reminded of that 17 year old- full of shame, full of fear, but knowing she needed to step off track. In doing so, the world had revealed itself, and by entering into the world I entered into myself. That failure was a gift. As I walked passed the admission building, a tear swelled in my eyes, remembering my late father’s words, ‘All will be OK. You’ll figure it out’. He was right- all is OK, and while in many ways I am still figuring it out, I have learned to trust that the failures are just learning in deep disguise. My only wish is that my Dad was around so I could thank him, for walking me to that door, and unbeknownst to me at the time, opening a much deeper, richer one for me. It is a door that keeps on opening, one failure at a time.


2 Responses to “A Little Tale of Failure, or is it?”

  1. Grainne

    Clare, what a wonderful post and memory! I’m sure you can imagine how proud you’re Dad would still be of you today. Should be shared among all students who think they may be on the wrong path and don’t have the courage to change. I had often wondered if I failed myself when choosing languages as my college entry (mostly because I had a big surplus of ‘points’ for it), yet if I went back I wouldn’t change it for the word 🙂

Leave a Reply to David Kenna

Click here to cancel reply.

Please leave me a comment. I look forward to hearing from you.