Rediscovering The Virtue of Failure

The greatest mistake a man can make is to be afraid of making one” Author Elbert Hubbard

I recently visited my nine-year-old daughter’s elementary school and was amazed by the technology in her classroom. It was nothing like my grade school experience – her classroom was filled with laptops, smart boards, interactive computer assisted devices and other gadgets. It was something that I couldn’t even imagine when I was nine. I can recall with excitement the day I played my first Atari game console. I used to get so excited to go to my cousin’s house because he had a Commodore 64. Things have changed so much since then, but in many ways they are exactly the same.

For the most part, students are taught in a similar fashion. There are the memorization heavy tests and the report card assessments. In public schools, teachers often have too many things to juggle and not enough time or resources to create individualized curriculum whereby student’s unique strengths can be assessed and cultivated. Unfortunately, our schools create a form of societal sorting system, and the reasons for this are complex and numerous. Using its own distinguishing mechanism, schools sort out the “good” students from the “bad”. They sort out the students with a “bright” future from those that are heading for “difficult” paths. However, their sorting mechanism isn’t foolproof. In many cases they get it wrong.

The current structure of many schools helps to create, and reinforce, a conditioned fear of individual failure and experimentation. This hasn’t changed from the time I was a child. There is the ever-present stick (although these days not as much a literal one), which manifests itself in detentions or punishments for disobedience, poor marks and failing grades for the “wrong answers”, and the requisite parent teacher interview to discuss the child’s progress relative to her peers. There is also the proverbial carrot – the reward for good behavior, the good marks and positive endorsements for the “right answers”. A well-behaved child may even be fortunate enough to earn a positive “label”, which will follow them throughout their life, such as “smart”, “gifted”, “talented” or “advanced”. A poorly behaved child, particularly one who is consistent in giving wrong answers, may also earn a “label” of a different, and far more troubling kind, given the phenomenon of the Pygmalion Effect.

In the most formative years of our life, we can become conditioned to seek the right answers, get praise from people who are in a position to give it, and avoid inconsistency or disruption at all costs. Failure can be a terrifying prospect for a child. It places children in a position of uncertainty because they are told that their life may be difficult going forward if they don’t figure it out. Children with learning difficulties, or a lack of emotional support at home, or in their immediate social community, often can’t find the resources they need to be “successful” in the conventional school setting. The label that is presented to them, if accepted as a foundation of their self-identity, can have damning consequences that only an empowering contradictory reference can negate.

Also, many students seek career opportunities in post-secondary school where economic security and social acceptance are the defining rewards. This is because of the conditioning that has been cultivated from childhood. Getting the carrot, in whatever form it presents itself, feels good, not just to a child but also to an adult. Getting the stick, in whatever form it presents itself, doesn’t feel good. The model is effective and efficient. People, like me, who learned how to play the game, come out of the system with sterling recommendations and credentials, and a “bright future”, but in many cases find themselves unfulfilled. This is because we never learned as children to tap into the unique abilities that are inside of us. We never learned to experiment with life. We never learned the virtue of failure and risk.

Meanwhile, many people who either reject, or are rejected by, the conventional model, end up innovating, creating, and adding value to the world in a way that changes society for the better. Once they are rejected, or labeled, or “fail”, they have nothing to lose. They are freed from the chains of expectation and consistency. No one expects the people who “fail” in our school system to amount to anything, so they aren’t scared of failure. They aren’t afraid to experiment. They aren’t afraid to try new things, even if they go wrong. They often experiment until they tap into a unique value proposition. In many cases they also change the world.

There are many reasons that our current system perpetuates. It is controllable and it is safe. It creates a power structure that is visible and without chaos and uncertainty. It establishes a clear path to who is “supposed” to lead, who is “supposed” to innovate, create or advance society. It is the industrial revolution factory model of education and career advancement. There are plenty of factory vacancies out there in the world that need to be filled. Those who run the factories in our society (the power structures) need model obedient factory workers. We are conditioned to be model and obedient workers from the time we are children with the carrot and the stick. We are also conditioned to believe that there are certain avenues in life that are relatively risk free – that if we obtain certain status positions for example, that we really won’t have to deal with the twin terrors of risk and failure. Our position in the factory system will be secure and we will be able to live out the duration of our lives in peace and pleasure.

It is very natural to have a fear of failure. As humans we don’t want to feel less significant than others. We don’t want to be separated from our community, even if that separation is in our own minds. It is understandable to intensely fear feeling inadequate because that strikes directly to our feelings of self-worth. When we feel inadequate, or less significant, we will often feel that “we are not enough”. This can be a terribly immobilizing feeling. It can also be very undesirable to feel alone, especially when the isolation isn’t self-prescribed as a form of emotional therapy. Failure, when interpreted in a dis-empowering way, can leave us with a sense of being alone.

All of the negative feelings that we associate with failure however are made up in our minds. We convince ourselves of the reality of these feelings because of our intense socialization, but we don’t need to be terrified of failure. We can condition ourselves to see failure in a different light. We can begin to believe that failure is a process, failure is good, and failure takes us closer and closer to our own unique value proposition. Without failure, you may never tap into your passion. If you view life as a series of experiments, all leading to the identification and cultivation of an area that you are passionate about, one that you will master in time, then failure is not only instructive but also necessary.

If I take a scientific method to my life, failure is not only helpful, it is absolutely necessary. In the scientific method, I start with the premise that I want to accomplish objective X; however, I don’t know the exact path to accomplish objective X, especially if the goal is unique and hasn’t exactly been duplicated before. Therefore, I will seek input from others who I believe have knowledge of how to obtain objective X. I soon find out though, that despite their input and knowledge, the path is one that ultimately I must discover on my own. In order to discover the path I must gain knowledge and experience, and in many cases I need to try things, not knowing if they will work out. I must fail and learn, fail and grow, learn from my mistakes, gain good judgment from making bad decisions. Under this model there is really no such thing as failure. There are only results. This is a scientific process. If I don’t get the result that I want, by an action that I take, then I just change my approach. I continue to change my approach until I get the result that I want.

Why are we so scared of this process? Why do we have no problem applying this model under certain controlled settings (scientific experimentation for one) but resist it in others (like in the planning of our careers and the way that students are taught in schools)? Concerning our societal approach to failure, Kathryn Schulz, author of Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, notes,

Of all the things we are wrong about, this idea of error might well top the list. It is our meta-mistake: We are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition.

Failure and defeat are life’s greatest teachers [but] sadly, most people, and particularly conservative corporate cultures, don’t want to go there,” says Ralph Heath, author of Celebrating Failure: The Power of Taking Risks, Making Mistakes and Thinking Big.  He continues

 Instead they choose to play it safe, to fly below the radar, repeating the same safe choices over and over again. They operate under the belief that if they make no waves, they attract no attention; no one will yell at them for failing because they generally never attempt anything great at which they could possibly fail (or succeed).

In many cases, the main reason that people are terrified of failure is that they haven’t even engaged the first step in the scientific method – they have no idea what they actually want. They don’t even know what they are looking for. They don’t have a clear, concise and compelling objective that they are seeking. They have no clue. They see the objective in general terms and it usually deals with material comforts, social position, and community significance – things that are hard to clearly articulate when one has “arrived”. So they cling to the institutions that they think will best provide these. The problem is that these institutions rarely provide them with fulfillment and they rarely help them tap into an individual unique value proposition. Failure is valuable when you evoke the scientific method. You determine exactly what you want with clarity and then pursue it using trial and error. Failure is a necessary and valuable part of the process, until your desire is obtained.

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