Failure?

The wag on “Get Up!” — a weekly sports show on ESPN — put it best when he said: “Failure is a good thing. It teaches us valuable lessons.”

The topic surrounded the recent loss of a football team that had been sailing along beating their opponents fairly easily. They lost the most recent game and the question for the table was weather or not this might be a good thing in the long run. It was generally accepted that it would in fact be a good thing as it would make the losing team more determined and work harder to avoid losses in the future. Indeed, it is a maxim — if not an axiom — in sports that losing can be the best thing for a team that begins to feel it is invincible.

This is one of the reasons why sports is so important a part of our culture, since sports teach important life-lessons. As a whole, we tend to think that losing is the worst thing that can happen. In our schools, for example, we hear that “no child should be left behind,” and I even had a colleague years ago who refused to give grades to his students because it would mean that some would fail. As you can imagine, students flocked to his classes and did absolutely nothing in order to simply be passed along — and get valuable college credit.

But the disparity between the sports axiom and the common notion in the schools (and in the home) regarding failure or success is worthy of thought. I maintain that the sports world knows what it is talking about and the rest of us should simply shut up: failure can be a good thing. It most often is as most of us would attest if we are honest.

Years ago I wrote a post about George Washington who reflected on his losses late in his life — the experience with Braddock in the French and Indian wars, for example — and insisted that they were the most important lessons he learned and steeled him later in life for future disappointments and losses and made him able to win out in the end.

So let it be agreed: failure can be a good thing. Let the kids lose and hope they learn from those losses and become future winners. Because, like it or not, there are winners and there are losers in life.

4 thoughts on “Failure?

  1. Hugh, well said by Professor and Coach Curtler. If you ask someone to think back over his or her life, he or she probably remember the failures better than the successes. That is because he or she did something about the failures. Keith

  2. Very true – this has been a topic of discussion in our house around the election. Our chosen candidate may or may not win and if he loses, what should our response be. Can good come from loss or suffering? I believe that it can – if you choose to look for it.

    Then again, my mom once said, “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose, as long as you win. Everyone else is a loser…” We laugh about that one a lot. No wonder we are a competitive bunch and strive to win. Now we’re all working on being good losers or at least learning from the loss.

  3. I am reminded of the New York Mets who, until 1969 had never placed higher than next-to-last in their league. Then in 1969, apparently having learned some valuable lessons from their failures, went on to win the National League pennant and the World Series.

    I agree that we learn from our mistakes. I taught a class in computer programming for one semester, filling in for a prof who was out due to illness, and I think I repeated myself 100 times in that semester, saying “You will learn more from the mistakes you make, than you will from that textbook”.

  4. Dr. Curtler,

    As always, an interesting and instructive post.

    The American philosopher and educational reformer, John Dewey, said that failure was both an instructive and necessary part of the natural organic process of adapting to a changing world. As such, failure can be the basis of the reconsideration and clarification of one’s thoughts and actions.

    Upon reflection, a person can learn quite as much from their failures as from their successes. Failure can be an opportunity to receive helpful, if sometimes painful, feedback on our strengths and weaknesses. When understood and experienced as a constructive and essential part of learning, failure can be a master teacher.

    Dewey, I think, was not talking about dead-end failure, the kind that results in loss of opportunity, regression, or stagnation, but rather the failure of the typical ways – both big and small – in which we adapt to and shape our world, behaviorally, emotionally, cognitively, and collectively.

    Philosophically and pedagogically, Dewey focused on the constructive aspects of failure. As a society, we tend to look at failure far more negatively and narrowly. The unanticipated consequence is that many of our problems stem not so much from failure itself as (1) the anticipation and fear of failure, and/or (2) the refusal to recognize and accept failure when it occurs. It is hard not to fall into one or the other of these two, sometimes devastating, traps.

    A paradox of the continual emphasis upon “success” is that often it can lead to either the fear of failure or the refusal to recognize it, both of which can all but guarantee failure or undermine the possibility of future successes. Put simply, a situation in which nobody ever fails is probably a situation in which nobody ever learns. The aphorism that “Insanity is consistently doing the same thing in anticipation of different results” would ring true to Dewey, I suspect.

    I have witnessed the academic consequences of educational practices that avoid the challenges of learning for fear that some might not meet those challenges. The result is that few learn anything beyond either a naïve mediocrity or an abiding cynicism about education.

    I do not assume the problems inherent in avoiding both the challenges and the honest examination of failure are limited to academic life. Indeed, a serious discussion of the importance of honestly recognizing and effectively dealing with failure is long overdue in our entire society, particularly with respect to many public policies.

    Thanks, again, for another thoughtful and thought-provoking comment.

    Regards, respects, and best wishes,

    Jerry Stark

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