Sunday, October 4, 2009

Epic Fail

Current Reading: Symir: the Drowning City, by Amanda Downum

Inspirational Quote: "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." -- Thomas Edison

"One hundred percent of the shots you don't take don't go in." -- Wayne Gretzky

Synchronicity. It's more than just an album by the Police. It's when events occur which, although causally unrelated, are related in meaning. This week, I've experienced a synchronicity of people talking about failure.

If you don't know what failure is, then good for you. Here's a bazillion illustrated examples to help you figure it out.

If you're afraid of failure, then congratulations. So am I, so we both have company. We can also include Moonrat in our group. But I think failure is an underappreciated experience in our society. I'm not saying that failure should be embraced. I'm certainly not saying it should be encouraged.

I'm definitely not saying it should be rewarded. I think that the stupid American banks should have been allowed to collapse. I think GM should have been dissolved. I realize that both these things would have hurt people, but I think that the collapse of these institutions would have been the correct consequence for their mismanagement. If those who actually mismanaged things could then somehow be on the hook for the financial penalties (instead of earning millions in bonuses), then the world would be an altogether better place. As it is, their failures were rewarded, and there appears to be no incentive not to fail even more spectacularly in the future.

Now, doesn't that give you hope for tomorrow?

My brother-in-law is a teacher. He's frustrated. Most good teachers are. He can't fail anyone. Those who set policy believe that the harm done to a child's self esteem when they fail is greater than the harm done to their self esteem when they get to high-school without being able to read. It doesn't matter how big a discipline problem a child is. It doesn't matter what natural difficulties a child has that may make them slow to absorb lessons. It doesn't matter whether a child puts any effort into their education. My brother-in-law is under enormous pressure to pass them. This past weekend he brought up failure in a conversation we were having. He's infurated by having to deal with the results of this policy: kids who believe that not learning is okay because they'll get through school either way.

Aeneas is a bright kid, but last year he would have rather been "cool" like some of the slackers in his class. As a result, he put in no effort he wasn't forced to (oh, those were some fun nights). I wish his teachers had failed him, so that he could experience the consequences of being "cool," so that he could discover for himself the price he was paying for his attitude. Instead, we have no guarantee that this year is going to be any different from last year.

Kristine Katharine Rusch has a fair bit to say about failure (check out the videos she posts), its benefits and place in the development of capable human beings. I agree very strongly with every point she makes.

I think one of the problems that will face the next generation (and is already starting to trouble this one) is a lack of experience with failure, a desire not to accept the personal consequences of personal failure, and ignorance about what needs to be done to recover from failure.

Because that's the where you'll find the value in failure: what happens after.

I have a friend who's a very good painter. A couple of years ago, she entered an art competition that rejected her work in a brutally unprofessional manner. She hasn't picked up a brush since. She's learned that she didn't want artistic success if it meant having to endure what she endured.

On the other hand, over the years, my short stories have been rejected in dozens of places. I've learned that those places weren't right for those pieces at those times. I've learned to study the markets more deeply. I've learned to target my marketing better. My failures are helping to lay the groundwork for my eventual success. And even if there is no success, I've learned to keep my perspective in the face of rejection and I've learned to take out of those failures whatever knowledge or wisdom I can and apply it to my next attempt.

What should happen after is that we pick ourselves up and try again, or try something else. The single most valuable thing we can learn from failure is that it can't stop us.

Because that's what we should really fear: giving up.

(Footnote: study of the life of Mr. Edison is fascinating. Here is a man who embraced failure with a feverish energy, hounding it until it surrendered the secret of success.)


Amalia T. said...

This is a great post.

Failure certainly is a difficult thing, but I have to agree that we're doing ourselves and the next generations a great deal of harm by keeping ourselves and them from experiencing it in all its glory. We need failure in order to encourage us to reach for greatness instead of mediocrity. And children NEED to learn to cope with these things young, so that when they're adults they're able to actually function in the real world.

And as for the politics--I'm right there with you.

Ulysses said...

What concerns me most is the resulting sense of entitlement: I deserve success because... well, just because. I shouldn't have to work for it.

What kind of world are these people going to build, and who could possibly stand to live in it?

Amalia T. said...

While, if we allowed them to fail, they would better understand that work is necessary, and success is not just handed to us-- yes, absolutely.

It is pretty frightening to think about. The answer, though, which is even more frightening, is that they aren't going to build a world. There will be the few who have an understanding of hard work, who will strive for excellence and innovation, but they'll be so weighed down by the huge number of people who expect things to be handed to them, that forward momentum will slow to a crawl and then a stand still. Worst case scenario, I guess.

Best case, someone invents robots to do all the work for them, so that success really is handed to them by an underclass of slaved machines.

Maybe I go too far, but I absolutely agree that it's something we should be seriously concerned about.