The F-Word: Shafeez Walji
Meet Shafeez. He’s a Product Designer, one who’s specifically passionate about always designing with empathy and intent in mind, and an all-around rad human. Growing up in a small community within Edmonton, Calgary, Shafeez always felt different. Everything changed for for him when he made the move out to Vancouver to study graphic design, where he discovered his true calling.
I sat down with Shafeez to discuss the role that failure plays in his life, how his definition of the word has evolved dramatically over the years, and to explore his ideas for how we can begin to shift the discourse around failure. Here’s my conversation with Shafeez.
HOW DO YOU DEFINE FAILURE?
I think that for me, failure has meant a few different things over time. When I was younger, it felt like it was something purely negative. It was about not being able to achieve something that I’d been striving for, but not really learning from the experience. And so growing up, that's what it always meant—living in this dynamic where I felt like I was either failing or I was successful. And that was it; those two concepts were in completely different worlds. In going through school and not being the best student, I often felt like I was a failure, in that sense of not following that traditional success track. So that was what it meant for me back then.
Now, I look at failure as just a part of learning. But at the same time if you're if you're constantly doing the same thing again and again and again, then you're not learning from it and are doomed to keep failing. Failure has become a normalized word for me and is a part of my everyday vocabulary.
HOW DID YOU MAKE THAT TRANSITION FROM ‘FAILURE AS SHORTCOMING’ TO ‘FAILURE AS LEARNING OPPORTUNITY’?
It wasn't until I moved to Vancouver and started graphic design. Trevor, one of my teachers—who is the most impactful teacher I had—he was very big on this idea of needing to go through the process of failing at a concept before you can get to the version of the concept that makes the most sense. And it was something that I didn’t really understand at first, coming from that mentality of what I used to think of the word ‘failure’ as meaning. It was a big learning curve for me, in terms of becoming a designer and learning to go through that process of needing to fail at what I try before I can get better at it. If I didn't accept that this was the new way that I had to learn, then I would never have been able to go as far and as deep as I have been able to as a designer. So that was kind of a crossroads for me—am I ready to take on this new definition or am I just going to back off and keep thinking of failure and success as these black and white opposites?
WHEN YOU’RE IN THOSE MOMENTS OF FAILURE, HOW DOES IT FEEL? WHAT’S YOUR THOUGHT PROCESS?
I think initially, it's always this feeling of 'What just happened?' Because sometimes I put so much effort and energy into things. And to see it not crystallize or turn into that thing that I had set out for it to be can be kind of like a slap in the face. But then I kind of sit back and try and almost take myself out of that situation to look at it from a bird's eye view where I can see that there were things that I could have done differently in that process to perhaps get to a better result or what I learned from this process that is going to eventually get me to that better result. So it feels negative in the beginning, but then I kind of take myself out of my own body in a sense and just kind of look at what I learned in this process.
ANY PARTICULAR LESSONS OF PERSONAL FAILURES THAT STICK OUT TO YOU FROM YOUR PAST?
One of the first things for me was realizing that growing up in Edmonton, where I was surrounded by people who were so different from who I wanted to be, I was failing in that environment. Not a lot of people went down a creative path in my community; not a lot of people were really shitty students in high school like me. So I always felt like I was kind of in that category of 'less than.'
I think going through that process made me realize what I am and that I have my own thing going on. Going through that experience was necessary for me to realize what it was that I wanted to be, what I actually cared about. I wanted to be a designer. I didn't know everything that it was going to take to become a designer. But I just knew I'd finally found something I was interested in.
Thinking back to what I went through in Edmonton, that process forced me to understand that it was very necessary for me to pursue that creative path instead of feeling like I had to follow the direction of other people, or worrying too much what other people think I should be up to. That was that was a big moment for me.
WHY DO YOU THINK WE STILL HAVEN’T NORMALIZED TALKING OPENLY ABOUT OUR FAILURES?
We kind of live in this world where everyone's trying to 'fake it till they make it'. And that has a really big impact. People aren't ready to put their truths out there of how much shit they go through before they actually get to a place where they can talk about that. As much as we all go through those failures, most people put up this shield of not wanting to be vulnerable or to share their vulnerability with the rest of the world because they feel this pressure to be the one that knows how everything works or they feel compelled to present this level of trust and credibility.
You second-guess sharing all your failures...but at the end of the day, they're what got you to this place so why wouldn't you share that? At the end of the day, it's always a bit of a struggle with oneself to decide when is it fair to share your failures. Like, do I have to reach this certain point in my career first?
One of the best examples I can think of is Michael Jordan. There was a commercial a long time ago for Air Jordans that I remember watching. And in it, he was walking through the hallway before he enters a game and he's just talking about every single one of his failures. So he's saying 'I've missed the game winning shot x amount of times' and 'I've messed up this many games for my team’. And I remember being kind of shocked when I saw it, because this is the most legendary basketball player.
But what I wonder is this: could he have said all of those things while he was going through the process? It’s almost like it took him getting to where he wanted to be where he was doing all the things that he wanted to do before he was in this advertisement where he was openly talking about his failures.
So sometimes it seems like people are always waiting for this 'right moment' to talk about it. But there really isn't a right moment; you either do it or you don't. So again, it's that battle with oneself, a battle that puts the discussion on hold or doesn't allow it to happen as much as it should.
OFTENTIMES, THE FEAR OF FAILURE KEEPS US FROM EVEN TRYING IN THE FIRST PLACE. HOW DID YOU PERSONALLY MANAGE TO OVERCOME THAT FEAR?
It took me a long time to really understand that failing wasn't just a purely negative thing. It took a lot of mentorship from my graphic design teacher Trevor to literally sit there with me and explain to me why failing was going to lead to me ultimately being better. I was always trying to work as hard as I could every day to do the best that I could so that I wouldn't fail. But in going through that process, you realize that you can't have everything all figured out. And I think learning to start giving up control of the things that you're not able to control takes time.
Seeing others who have gone through that process and are willing to share their failures or are talking about it has also really helped me see how it's going to impact my own life and how it's going to be important to my own process. But every day, I feel like I'm still facing it. Because sometimes I can get stuck in how it sucks. Sometimes I still feel like I don't know where to go from here. So I would say it's process every day to just understand that failing is important and that there's going to be some experiences that don't feel as good. But there are going to be times when you understand exactly what the process is leading up to.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU HAVE TO THOSE STILL LEARNING HOW TO HAVE THAT RESILIENCY IN THEIR OWN LIVES?
The biggest thing that helped me get there is sitting on my own and reflecting when there's something on my mind instead of just trying to keep myself busy. Sitting there with those feelings and actually trying to think about what you're feeling inside and not running away from it. The longer you sit there, the more you begin to get more comfortable with those feelings. You start to feel like you can, I mean I don't want to say control them, but feel like you have a grasp on things. And you start to look at failure in this more optimistic way.
WHY IS FAILURE IMPORTANT?
When shady things happen, I think you learn so much more from that than you do from the positive things when everything's going good in life. Because there's a lack of learning in the successful process when you just go with the flow. Through those failures though, all the learning starts to happen. And sometimes it needs to repeat itself, two or three times, or even more before you kind of get to understand that lesson. Failure will kind of keep happening until you learn that lesson and then you're able to move on. But that’s how you grow.
HOW WOULD YOU PROPOSE WE SHIFT THE CONVERSATION AROUND FAILURE? HOW DO WE CREATE LASTING CHANGE?
I would love to see failure talked about more in elementary or junior high school, because that's where we start to form our opinions about what failure actually is. We start to compare our marks to the marks of our friends or even just the other kids in our class. And that becomes our distinction of how to succeed. That's something that the education system really needs to focus on and do a lot more thinking about how to integrate that into the lesson plans. If conversations around failure start at a younger age, of trying to address how it can be a bigger part of learning than successes are, I believe we would start to see real change happen.
Stay tuned next month when we’ll speak with Brittany Tiplady, Co-Editor-in-Chief and Co-founder of Loose Lips Magazine!