My daughter was looking over the syllabus from a college English class that she had just started, and she was distraught over the thought of having to make an in-class critique of another student’s writing. “I’m just not good at that sort of thing!” she despaired.
I tried to allay her concerns by pointing out that part of the objective of her taking this class was to strengthen her ability to think and express herself critically and cohesively. “If you already were good at this, you wouldn’t need to take the class,” I reminded her. “It’s through our mistakes that we learn – that’s not failure, that’s learning.” I’m not at all sure she was convinced.
Has it always been this way? Have we always been so afraid of failure that even the process of beginning something new has to have a guarantee of success before we even feel able to attempt it? I fear this is the case for many of us. So how much are we missing out on while we wait for assurance that we will excel in the effort? How deeply are these myopic expectations towards others, towards society and towards ourselves limiting our own experiences?
Perhaps this fear is why a quote by writer Neil Gaiman has always resonated so deeply with me. At a celebration at Carnegie Hall with Hank and John Green, guest Gaiman responded to a request for advice from an aspiring writer with this piquant wisdom:
Read everything. Write. Finish things and get on with the next one … You’ll learn more from a glorious failure than from something you’ve never finished.
Glorious failure. Oh, how I love that idea.
Every day we fail, in some way or another. Sometimes we fail due to circumstances beyond our control; often we fail simply because of ourselves. That extra ten minutes we expected to sleep by hitting the snooze button instead turns in to being half an hour late in our morning routine. We burn the bacon. We decide, “oh, I’ll put it off until tomorrow” then forget about it until tomorrow is done. We mean to buy that birthday card for Mom (because an email just won’t do) but we have to work through lunch and the store is closed when we get there and when we finally do get the card we realize we’re out of stamps and won’t have an opportunity to get to the post office because it’s Saturday and it closed at noon and who can get up and going before noon on a Saturday anyway?
But are our failures truly what we did not accomplish successfully, or are they instead defined by how we respond to those things that are not successful? If we oversleep, do we try to accomplish everything as if things were normal and end up stressed and running behind all day, or do we cut something out of our schedule in order to catch up, or even call into work and let them know we’ll be a little late and take the hit for avoidable circumstance? Do we cry about burning the bacon, or make a salad with toast rather than a BLT? Do we shrug off missing Mom’s birthday, or do we make a special effort to call her instead, apologizing for having to send a belated birthday card – again?
Do we learn from our failures, or do we simply not attempt the thing in the first place, due to the fear that we might fail?
It seems to me that the only way we truly fail is if we do not learn from our failures. Yes, sometimes we do face an epic fail. But even these failures do not define who we are unless we allow them to do so. It may sound glib, but it actually is fairly simple. We embrace that we aren’t going to always succeed in everything, and have a positive attitude and move forward regardless. And above all, we cannot – cannot – allow the fear of failure from keeping us from attempting something that we truly want to accomplish.
In her now famous speech to the Harvard graduating class of 2008, author J.K. Rowling said:
It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.
She went on to reiterate that her failures taught her things about herself that she could not have learned in any other way, and that we all can emerge from our failures stronger and wiser by having endured them.
Rowling is not the only famous person to feel this way. Many others who are considered pioneers or top of their trade have had potentially crushing defeats, but they didn’t let it hold them back. (The following is the obligatory list of famous people who came back from failure… but I’m hoping you’ll enjoy it anyway!)
Albert Einstein did not get into the prestigious Federal Polytechnic School on his first attempt – he failed the non-science sections and was denied entrance. But that didn’t stop him and he qualified the next year (a year ahead of most applicants). Thomas Edison said of his attempts to refine the light bulb, “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work.” Babe Ruth, who for half a century held the record for most home runs in a career at 714, also held the record for strikeouts at 1,330. His response to his critics? “Every strike brings me closer to the next home run.” In 1944, Norma Jean Baker was told by a modeling agency to either learn to be a secretary or get married. Instead, she became Marilyn Monroe. Stephen King’s first book, Carrie, was rejected so many times that he threw it in the trash; it was only due to his wife’s retrieving it and encouraging him to submit it again that we can now read it (and so many others) today. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team. Vincent Van Gogh only sold one painting in his lifetime. Dick Cheney flunked out of Yale – twice. The list goes on and on.
Let’s face it – we’ve all faced setbacks, we’ve all experienced failure. When I lost my job, I knew it was not because of anything I had done. But in the ensuing months, with no job and even precious few interviews, I had a hard time staving off a very debilitating sense of failure. It wasn’t until I made the decision to stop trying to recreate what I once had, but instead take the opportunity to move forward with what I had always dreamed of doing, that I found the personal satisfaction which I now enjoy as a reader of books and a writer of words. I’m not deluding myself – there may be a day when I have to return to considering a paycheck first and personal fulfillment second – but it’s not today, so I’m not going to worry about it.
Hopefully my daughter will also be able to walk into her first class critique without too much worry; with an open mind, confident that she is going to learn and grow despite any initial awkwardness. And if she does come out of that classroom with a sense of failure, I hope she will not see it as a defeat but as a jumping off point for possibility, whether that is sturdy endurance, forging ahead or even moving in a different direction. And hopefully she knows, however it goes, that she’ll have a whole network of people standing behind her, supporting her and her decisions. Because all of us, each one of us, will someday – any given day – be facing our own failures.
And hopefully, all of our failures will be glorious.
~ Sharon Browning