Friday, October 12, 2012

In Praise of Failure

failureWhat a bizarre title. Why on earth would anyone praise failure? This light bulb looks spectacular, but it sure as heck is not functional as a light bulb anymore.

We are taught to fear failure. In school, failing is a source of shame - we are supposed to get it right the first time.  If you are the coach of a professional team, failure is guaranteed to earn you a one-way ticket out of your job. Other careers may be a little more forgiving, but in general, if you fail on a regular basis, you are regarded with contempt and pity. There is clearly something wrong with a broken light bulb, no matter how brightly it flares.

When I posted on Facebook the other day that I was planning to blog about failure, one person queried me about it and suggested writing about challenge instead. It's hard to accept that failure can be a good thing.

Another friend pointed me to this video of  J.K. Rowling speaking on the benefits of failure:

The most striking words she says here, in my opinion, are that failure at the conventional life that her parents envisioned for her allowed her to concentrate on what she really wanted to do, namely her writing. If, she says, she had been successful at the other things she tried to do, she probably would never have had the discipline and the concentration to write, and the world would never have been enriched by Harry Potter.

I myself, in my life, have been very successful at things that turned out not to matter very much, and which ended up being mere stepping stones to an unexpected outcome of greater value. Many people would consider the acquisition of a Ph.D. in physics to be a very successful achievement - and yet it turns out I did not want to be a research physicist, and that attempting to fit myself into that mould led me into depression and bad choices. Ultimately, though, that Ph.D. program gave me the husband and family I have today.

A B.Ed. eventually followed, but I found that I was a very square peg in the round hole of high school teaching. While I loved working with the kids, the things that I had hated about high school thirty-five years ago were still there, unfortunately. However, those two years of my life that I sank into the B.Ed. program allowed me to advocate far more effectively for my children than I would ever have been able to without it. It also cemented the teaching skills I have always had intuitively, even if I never get a "real job" as a teacher.

Where am I going with this? I was always the kid with so much potential. I am sure I have been a disappointment to my parents and teachers who thought I would build a career in science or education or maybe something else.

I'm still trying to figure out what I want to be when I grow up, how I can make an impact. Maybe I never will, but I hope and believe there is a contribution I can make to the redemption of the world. I just have to figure out what it is, given that every ostensible failure has led to an unexpected success in a different realm, and that I am not yet done with this journey. I am hopeful that my writing and teaching will help someone, somewhere, someday. That light bulb has failed in its ostensible purpose, but oh, what a gorgeous picture!

How about you, how have your failures given you unexpected gifts and strengths?


  1. Well, I have no idea how to answer your question, but reading this has made me feel better. I've been feeling a lot of this, lately - "I myself, in my life, have been very successful at things that turned out not to matter very much..."

    Of course, there are the kids. Is this what tempts parents to live vicariously through them?

  2. Hadass, I am trying not to be too overly naive here - and I am going to be totally honest. When you said you were going to blog about failure, I never in a million years would have guessed you were going to write about yourself. In all the years that I have known you (and that's been a LOT!!!), only when I read your sentence "I am sure I have been a disappointment to my parents and teachers..." did I realize that you view your career and changing directions in your career as an example of "failure". It just never occurred to me that you would attach the word "failure" to that. (and I know you aren't saying you view yourself/your choices as anything like a "failure" - you're writing about it in a kind of philosophical way.)
    FWIW, exactly as you've described, I've viewed your path as experimenting to find where you're most comfortable. It's certainly not like you've given up on anything (which is kind of where my definition of "failure" fits I think.) You have always engaged in life, fully living it, willing to try new things, willing to experience. I've always respected your wide array of interests and how you dive into new things completely. And you know that, too. Not meaning to sound I don't know - motherly or anything. You are a confident woman.

    Not sure what I'm trying to say. I think that often, when we feel like we've "failed" something, it is actually a decision that we don't fit the mold that someone else has made for us (or the mold that we THINK someone else has made for us). "Failure" in that sense of the word is really, as you say, simply switching over to another path. It's often simply a type of realization.

  3. Nice post, and very thought provoking. I turn this over a lot. In some ways, I've gone much farther than I "should have" and in some ways, I've not "lived up to my potential". Whatever that is, and whoever gets to decide that, right? Right.

    Holly, I think that is very much why parents are tempted to live through their kids.

    I'm working daily on deciding what my own "potential" is, and where I would like to invest my energies (and risk my failures). Thanks for the reminder.

  4. I related to this so much! I was always that "much is expected from her" child, and I perennially felt like I never lived up to my potential. Now I find myself at 54, just right the way I am, even if I *never* do anything else. Seriously, must we save the world? Isn't contributing love and therapy to your friends and giving the world three wonderful little people enough? I think it is! Whatever else we may do, it better be organic, flowing from us doing what we love and if it inadvertantly changes the world, great. I don't feel the pressure anymore Hadass! I hope you don't either. I admire you greatly. L

  5. Love Lynne's comment. I think part of the problem too is that we have allowed "society" to define what is successful and what is failure. We have convinced ourselves that progress defines success and lack of progress defines failure. I am working to change my own mindset on that. Success may be something that we each define on our own. If I decide that I am most comfortable living as a hermit and meditating all day long, then that is my success. We are trained to think that only if we contribute to society in a positive way, then we are successful. For some (many), that may indeed be their success. But it doesn't follow that everyone must feel that way. The feelings of failure come from trying to fit an external definition onto ourselves...

  6. I totally love you guys. I wasn't looking for validation, but it's nice to get it anyway ;-). Here's what my sister had to say:

    Thank you for this post. I love the responses of your friends. What good friends!

    Thinking about it in context of my life, my definition has been that mediocrity equals failure. If you fail spectacularly at something, like the light bulb, its different from just being OK. I guess then you also don't get the insights cited by JK. Its complicated. Its not a dichotomy - its a continuum -- and the same place looks like failure one day and not on another....Go on thinking about it, I'd like to hear more. (and I have admired you greatly for the longest....)

    I tried to post it on your blog but google wont let me and I don’t have the time to fight it. So you can post it, or just read it yourself.

  7. I think I was very much blessed by opportunities without unrealistic expectations; I honestly think that most of the "expectations" were those I put on myself, as far as the "oh, so much wasted potential" kind. And I wonder if this little moment of angst isn't brought to us in the guise of a modern version of the "midlife crisis," which isn't so much crisis as niggling self doubt.

    It's ironic, though, that those of us who even waste a moment's breath worrying about such things are often looked up to by others as examples of success. So shhhhh! Stop disillusioning them! ;)


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