Failure isn’t something we like to talk about. In business, for every Google, there’s hundreds, if not thousands, of companies that fail to achieve success every year. Failure makes people uncomfortable, so uncomfortable that we have a hard time talking about it and acknowledging its role in life. At the Mills College 1983 Commencement, author Ursula K. Le Guin highlighted the oft-ignored topic of failure:
Success is somebody else’s failure…No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.
Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself—as I know you already have—in dark places, alone, and afraid.
Le Guin makes two points about failure that I believe are contributors to our discomfort: (1) success can imply someone else’s failure; and (2) failure reveals weaknesses.
1. Success can imply someone else’s failure.
Marketing peeps like to talk about “win-win” solutions. My question to you, does this ever happen? In order for both sides to win, doesn’t this result imply a certain level of compromise on both sides? We look for the win-win because we’re uncomfortable with the negative implications of someone failing (unless they’re you’re mortal enemy, and you take unholy delight in their downfall).
During recent years, we’ve seen this attitude have an effect in the classrooms. Teachers hesitate to criticize students or grade hard, for fear of bringing down parental ire. Some schools are electing to stop publishing the honor roll in the local newspaper.
Principal Paul Richards said a key reason for stopping the practice is its contribution to students’ stress level in “This high expectations-high-achievement culture.”
Perhaps I’m not sympathetic enough to the plight of those who didn’t make the honor roll. However, isn’t the whole point of things like grades and the honor roll to give individuals knowledge of where they need improvement? From the same story about the honor roll, I found this head-scratching comment:
Richards said one parent with three children attending Needham High told him publishing the honor roll is a constant cause of stress in her family. According to that parent, one of the three students routinely made the honor roll while the other two did not.
Constant stress? It’s the honor roll, not life and death. Doesn’t this comment imply that maybe something is going on in this home to make the third student feel constant stress for not making the honor roll? The success of the other two students shouldn’t be overlooked to protect the feelings of the third.
2. Failure Reveals Weakness
What parent likes to admit she has a child weaker than another? Today’s parenting, now a competitive event for many, doesn’t leave room for addressing failure because of it’s implication that there’s a weakness. By default, we seem inclined to ignore weakness, believing that if one just tries hard enough, weakness can be overcome.
Since the introduction of self-esteem courses in schools during the 1970s, and parents continually telling their children, “You can do anything,” we’ve had a hard time facing reality.
Few people can do everything, let alone do it with the highest skill—and that’s not a bad thing.
If you were automatically good and everything, how much appreciation would you have for your accomplishments? Wouldn’t life be kind of boring? Weakness, and even failure, are some of the most powerful catalysts available to an individual. They’re the things that keep pushing us forward.
If you go into a grade school classroom today, I bet many of students honestly believe they all have an equal shot to be professional athletes, multi-millionaires, and/or CEOs. Unfortunately, few parents, or other adult role models, feel comfortable pointing out the uncomfortable facts: society still needs its trash collectors, social workers, and accountants, but these are rarely aspirations expressed by children.
Odds of Winning the NBA Draft
Consider the following equation for determining the chance of an NCAA basketball player being drafted by the NBA (note that this equation only counts the number of Division 1 players and doesn’t take into account the odds of making a Division 1 team):
- 30 NBA teams * 2 draft rounds = 60 draft positions
- 336 Division 1 Schools * 15 players/team = 5,040 potential draftees
- 60 draft positions / 5,040 potential draftees = 1.1% chance of being drafted
So, for every 100 kids that want to play in the NBA, just one has a shot, and the other 99 will have to figure out a different career.
Failure Doesn’t Have to be Negative
Let’s go back to Le Guin’s, “Because you are human beings you are going to meet failure.” I believe she’s right; however, we’ve forgotten we can reframe failure, turning it from a negative into a positive. Consider Thomas Edison’s take on his supposed failures: “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (link)
We do ourselves a disservice by ignoring the reality of failure and its potential. Failure is a marking point that we use to refine our efforts, to push ourselves into new directions. Yes, failure can be painful, depressing, and frustrating. But since failure isn’t going away, if we fail to learn how to deal with it, we’ll lose more than our dreams—we’ll lose our ability to progress on any level. Even if you’re like Edison, and all you’ve found at this point is 10,000 ways something won’t work, you’ve still learned something. Don’t overlook failure’s power to give you direction and weakness’s strength to give you insight.