Q & A: Caleb Meakins

Jamie Cutteridge meets the man behind 40 days of failure… 

JC: For those readers who haven’t heard of 40 Days of Failure, what is it?

CM: I started it after finishing university as a way of helping myself deal with and overcome the fear of failure. I realised it was one of the big things that was going to stop me pursuing what I’m passionate about. I’d won an award at university for a social enterprise and I came to tell people what I was going to do and I was just faced with pessimism. Really, at the heart of it, people were afraid of failure. It was a combination of me being afraid of it and also realising that society on doesn’t take risks or go for things that are challenging or difficult because they’re afraid they may fail.

I was struck by this concept in America called rejection therapy. It’s a card game that you play and it gives you different things to do daily. I thought it was an interesting concept and I built on that. I felt I could do something around rejection and failure for myself, fellow peers, entrepreneurs and graduates who are also crippled by this sense of fear of failure.

Lent was coming up, so I decided to do it over Lent. The idea would be that I go out and I film these challenges and document them on the blog. I did it for about three days in a row before I realised I’d bitten off more than I could chew. So I decided to spread it out. I did around 15 challenges over a two-month period. And then an ad agency got in touch and said, ‘We’ve seen your project, can you start with us in the next week?’ It was a firm that I’d heard of and would have died to be in, so I took it and worked with them for a period of time.

That really stalled the project, so it stopped, but then I had an epiphany that I just had to finish it. So that’s what’s happened. I’ve relaunched the project, and [am] going bigger and harder than before, and stepping further out of my comfort zone than ever before.

JC: Why do you think it has resonated so strongly with people?

CM: The fear of failure is a universal feeling. Perhaps it’s something that people can’t quite put their finger on, but it’s something that people subconsciously know is stopping them pursuing what they’re passionate about. A goal worth chasing is always going to require a discomfort. The ultimate aim is to get people to understand what their dream is and what God has put them on earth to do, and not lower their sights to things that are achievable or comfortable or mediocre, but rather to ask, ‘What’s the big vision; the big purpose for my life?’

As you set your eyes on that, you can ask, ‘What’s the thing that’s going to stop me chasing that?’ And really it’s going to be the fear of failure and feeling uncomfortable. When you look deeper, the fear of failure is really rooted in the fear of man; in the fear of what people think of you.

Ultimately, my faith is what motivates me. I understand that Jesus is everything and I guess this project is me journeying with that, but if I come out with a cross and start reading scripture and start speaking Christianese, I might lose three-quarters of the people who are following it. But I realise that this is a feeling that we all feel. As people see me journey with my attempt to overcome it, they ask questions about who I am and why I’m doing this. I’ve found that many people have been questioning Christianity and faith off the back of it.

JC: Is failure something the Church, in particular, struggles with? We build up this culture of success in the Church. We’re not very good at embracing our individual or collective failures.

CM: I think, in the UK, as a society as a whole, we’re built to fear failure. From early on in the education system you don’t fail tests… you don’t jump… you don’t ride your bike too fast in case you fall off. ‘Failure is not good’ is the kind of subconscious mindset. But if you go to the States there is this culture – particularly in areas where business is really thriving, like Silicon Valley – where you don’t get invested in unless you have failed and been around the block a bit.

I think the Church has a role to change that, especially if we believe in a God who says, ‘Through man it’s not possible, but with God all things are possible.’ And so, I think there are pockets of the Church that kind of get this. I’m yet to be really struck by a group that really goes out and says: ‘Let’s risk it and try things that we haven’t tried.’

If you keep on doing what you’ve always done you’re going to keep on seeing what you’ve always seen. I want to see revival and I want to see people come to know Jesus. If currently the statistics show that the percentage of people who know Jesus is two per cent, then if we keep on doing what we’re doing, what’s going to change? We need to be thinking outside of the box. We need to be trying things and we need to be failing. I feel the Church provides the perfect eco-system for failure with older, wiser people with finances and experiences to hand on to younger people who maybe haven’t tried things but have the energy and sometimes the vision.

I can remember being 16 years old and wanting to put on an event in the local area for my friends. I went to the vicar and told him about my idea and he just took a gamble. He held a meeting and brought in youth workers from two different churches and they listened to my plans and ideas, and then said they were behind me. Their decision to take a gamble and give it a go was hugely empowering because it could have fallen flat on its face and damaged the reputation of the churches. I feel churches should stick their young people on the edge and get them to do something, but be there to guide them and give them oversight. I’m passionate that the Church picks up this culture of risktaking. Failure isn’t a bad thing.

It’s important to be there to dust them off and encourage them to get back up. I think if you start young then you allow for a culture of vulnerability, and that will overflow into people’s lifestyles and how they live. One of the biggest tragedies is when leaders are not accountable and they find themselves in positions of leadership feeling alone, and living or doing something that may be immoral, and then when they fall everyone is like, ‘Woah.’ And if they’ve never had that close group that they’re accountable with then it’s a ticking time bomb really.

JC: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt?

CM: Going into the project I thought I would become fearless and I’d no longer fear failure. But as I did each challenge and some turned out worse than others I would fear more the idea that I would fail, particularly where there were big social stakes. So if I was going to face a situation where I’d be embarrassed in front of huge groups of people, I’d be terrified. I was wondering why I wasn’t becoming fearless, but I realised that it’s not necessarily fear that’s bad. Brené Brown talks a lot about this, because fear is a sign that we’re alive and it’s a good thing, so the aim isn’t to avoid fear; the aim is to learn tools to overcome fear. So I’ve developed four tools that I use.

The first is the idea that 20 seconds of insane courage is all you need to do anything that you’re afraid of, whether it’s bungee jumping, talking to your boss or asking the girl of your dreams out. Anyone can psych themselves up for 20 seconds. Before a challenge, I can say: ‘All I need is 20 seconds. That’s all I need to jump over that speed bump.’

20 seconds of insane courage is all you need to do anything that you’re afraid of

The second is to ask the question, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ In asking that you’re highlighting what you’re most afraid of.

The third is to visualise what the goal is. What is your aim? Then really focus in on that. That motivation should override the fear. Usually the fear comes in when it’s a big thing, a big goal, and there’s a lot at stake or if you fail there will be big consequences.

The fourth is that I pray my socks off. I believe that there is power in prayer and Jesus is with us. So whether I’m speaking to a small youth group or a big corporate, I always say those four things. I think it’s important that people know that prayer works and it’s a good tool.

JC: What is Shift and how did it start?

CM: Prior to Shift starting, when we were around 16, 17, 18, something happened in our local area and lots of us started taking our faith seriously. As a team we realised that one area of our lives that we really struggled with was sexual purity: the stuff the Church didn’t really talk about, like porn and those sorts of things. We started an accountability group called Last Man Standing with the idea that we would be honest and accountable with one another to help us overcome this struggle.

We opened up the group to people we thought would really benefit, and this thing just exploded. It went from six of us to 60 to 200. Then we all went off to university and it was about 1,000 people and different groups would meet regularly. New Year was coming up and we thought we could do a New Year event that really inspired us to start the new year on the right foot. We called the event Shift, but when we were organising it something stirred so much in our hearts and it felt much more than just a New Year’s Eve event. It felt like we were being called to rally our peers to live out their faith and live it out fully.

We’re passionate about the health of the Church. We believe a healthy church is one that is growing and one that has every age group present. Currently, when I look at the Church, I feel the 20s and 30s group is missing. Shift is a response to that. It’s about seeing the Christian 20s and 30s grow in number and in depth. The way that we see that happening is by focusing on four key areas: prayer, discipleship, evangelism and giving. If we can help Christians in their 20s really grow in those four areas it will be really blessing the Church and help the Church be healthier. By focusing on those four things I think we will see the Church grow in number and in depth, and the 20s and 30s really stepping up again.

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