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The King’s Speech and the Importance of Failure

May 13, 2011

So there’s a moment in this year’s Best Picture winner, The King’s Speech, when the future-king-to-be Prince Albert (Colin Firth) breaks down in tears, overwhelmed by his speech impediment, terrified about his upcoming coronation, and utterly lacking in confidence. He crumples at his desk and cries: “I’m just a naval officer!”

When I first saw that scene, I thought to myself: “Dude, I’ve totally been there.”

Few of us are heirs to the British throne, but many of us can relate to this feeling of panic—I know I can. We find ourselves in a situation we haven’t quite prepared for (work-related or otherwise), one in which we feel completely incompetent, where an uphill battle if not complete failure seems certain. We stare at the challenge and just know we can’t do it. We simply weren’t trained to handle it: “I’m just a naval officer!” (Feel free to replace “naval officer” with whatever self-description applies to you: “screenwriter,” “teacher,” “secretary,” “actor/waiter,” “student,” “plumber,” “stay-at-home-parent.”)

Here’s something I’m just beginning to learn (or perhaps remember, since I’m pretty sure I knew it once-upon-a-time): growth is painful. Yes, it can be exciting, fun even: but it hurts like hell. Why? Because growth requires change. And change involves leaving the comfort zone of certainty. And here’s the thing: we like certainty. People say they want happiness, but usually we just want certainty. In fact, we’ll often endure a bearable degree of unhappiness in exchange for certainty. People do it everyday. (Of course, not you. I know you would never do such a thing.)

Growth is also painful because it usually involves failure. A lot of it, at least in the beginning. And the older we get, the less good we are at tolerating failure. (This can be especially true if, like me, you’re something of a “high-achiever” and you’ve been successful at various skills/pursuits for most of your adult life. The idea of having to learn something new, of not being good at a skill/profession right away, of courting failure—unthinkable!)
Prince Albert wanted a quick fix to his speech impediment. He didn’t want to work hard. He didn’t want to endure further humiliation. He didn’t want to experience failure. Better to be a stutterer who doesn’t improve but maintains his dignity than a stutterer who’s willing to work hard even if it means failure and humiliation. Of course, once Albert became next in line to the throne, he was forced to grow, and with the help of an inspired speech therapist (Geoffrey Rush), he realized he wasn’t just a “naval officer” after all. But he had to learn a lot—and fail a lot—to come to that realization.

Many of us face similar situations or “impediments.” We want to start a business—but we went to school for nursing. We want to lose weight—but we’ve been fat all our lives. We want to write a novel—but we’ve only written screenplays. (Hey, I think I know that guy.) We want to advance in our chosen career—but we don’t know the next step to take, or whether we should just give up. And while it’s easy to get excited about tackling these challenges in the beginning, we inevitably hit the Wall. The Wall of Failure. Where things get hard and where it would be both easy and understandable if we just quit. (In movies, this phase is usually dealt with in a single scene where the hero breaks down and nearly gives up…then eventually rallies, faces his/her fears, and pushes through the Wall. In real life, however, this phase typically lasts a lot longer. Weeks, months, sometimes years.)

Contrary to our dreams of instant mastery and overnight success, failure is the necessary prelude to excellence. It’s a prelude most of us (myself included) would rather skip past or fast-forward through as quickly as possible, like they do in the movies. But without it, we wouldn’t grow, we wouldn’t learn, and we wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. (Let’s face it: The King’s Speech would’ve been a lot less interesting if Prince Albert had gone to Tony Robbins and cured his stuttering problem in 20 minutes.)

Movies like The King Speech are great, apart from their artistic and entertainment value, because they remind us that all of us can push pass our “impediments” and discover that we’re capable of so much more than we think we are.

But it’s important to remember that experiencing failure—indeed, coping with and being motivated by failure, sometimes for longer than we’d like—is integral to the process of discovering what we’re capable of.

Each of us is a “naval officer”—that is, we’re all good if not brilliant at something. But unless we’re willing to court failure, we’ll never find out if we’re actually kings.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Angie Girl permalink
    May 13, 2011 8:11 pm

    You hit the nail on the head. That’s what made this movie so great. As the saying goes – Show me a person who has never failed at anything and I’ll show you a person who has never achieved anything.

    Very heartfelt article.

  2. Reserved permalink
    June 6, 2011 1:34 am

    Good, insightful thoughts.

    I was feeling mentally blocked but reading your article has made me feel better.


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