Learning to Fail

by on May 18, 2012 in Must Reads with No Comments »


Many parents love to tell stories of the formidable hurdles they faced growing up, like the classic “I had a to walk uphill both ways in the snow to get to school” tale. My mother’s version of this story harkens back to her time in graduate school. There, on numerous occasions, her art school profs would make an interesting comment about one of her works in progress . . . and then tell her to destroy it. Or they would destroy it for her. Entire clay torsos were lobbed off in anatomy sculpture class and canvases were whitewashed in color theory. She speaks of the shock this always produced, but then notes the invaluable lesson learned: her development depended largely on learning how to fail better and better.

Two of our recent posts here and here ruminated on math phobias based on the fear of failure. This is a regular topic of conversation at the LEC, where we find that students are sometimes paralyzed by this fear. It seems that professional and educational sectors that encourage experimentation and failure are giving way to the drive for immediate success, all in service of efficiency, reputation, and ego.

Perhaps you’ve heard this famous quote by playwright Samuel Beckett, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” A recent article in the Chronicle for Higher Education, “Next time, Fail Better”, uses this as a launching pad for an interesting take on what we call failure and, more importantly, how we define (the road to) success. The author contends that students in the humanities can learn a lot from computer programmers, because “each time their efforts fail, the developers learn something they can use to get closer to success the next time.” While developing a program that “runs” and creating an amazing essay that “works” are quite different enterprises, the road to the successes are more alike than we may think.

In my writing classes and at the LEC, I often encounter students who think they have a golden first draft that is so fresh, brilliant, and true that there could never be any need for revision. How dismayed they are to receive a low grade or see the paper slaughtered with red marks! With this kind of failure, though, the student has the opportunity to decipher what should remain, what needs work, and how to be open for new inspirations and directions—this is what is golden.

What does this mean for today’s college student who may work full-time, be a parent, and live in NYC (with hurdles at every corner)? I think it means that students and professors alike must remember that life is not an exercise in mistake avoidance, but, rather, a process of gradual improvement that entails set-backs, leaps forward, failures, and solidly-earned progress.

As my students shift their notions of how success is reached in college, I’ll hesitate less to call a failure a failure and know that it is the most generous gift I could give to a writer in training.

Read the article here and share with us what you think!

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