For we all stumble in many ways.
— James 3:2
Recently, at a workshop for university presidents, one of my colleagues noted that at times he felt everyone was too afraid of failure. In fact, he challenged us to embrace failure — to give it a try, in order to understand its potential as a learning moment.
The example he gave was trying to teach a young child how to do math. He told the child to imagine he had 36 donuts, and to divide them into two lines. The boy struggled with this, his face screwing up in concentration. I believe the phrase he used was that he had that look of constipation on his face — all that energy to produce nothing. Finally my colleague said to him, “OK, stop trying to find the right answer. I want you to write down the first thought you have that you KNOW is wrong. Don’t over think it.” And so the child wrote 16. “Now add it up,” my colleague prompted. So the boy wrote down 16 over 16, and got 32. “No that isn’t right,” he said immediately, “It must be 18.”
The example my colleague was giving was that we mustn’t be pathologically afraid to fail, even though for many of us there can seem to be little as terrifying as even the thought of failure. Failure, though, can lead to creativity and intuition; it can spark ideas and results. Fear of failure, on the other hand, can stop us from innovating, from trusting intuition and sparking discovery.
It’s a strange motto, and the direct reverse of the concept “too big to fail” which is replete with all that we dislike in society — entitlement, bloated arrogance, even a type of blackmail suggesting that if you don’t support something that has become monstrously large, it will take you down with it. But dare to fail is challenging in and of itself.
Baseball player Ted Williams once said that those who “only fail seven out of 10 times turn out to be the greatest in the game.” Richard Rohr, for his part, argued that “When we fail we are merely joining the great parade of humanity that has walked ahead of us and will follow after us” (Falling Upward). And Steven Johnson, in Where Good Ideas Come From, notes that “Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.”
As a university professor I taught many different types of students. I spent a great deal of effort on those who failed and tried to flee, to find ways to win them over and convince them not to give up. But I was always especially drawn to those who struggled at a task but came back fighting. I remember one of my Aboriginal PhD students once thumped the table after I’d returned his draft covered in comments. “You always say I’m almost there, and then you send me away to start all over again.” “What’s your point?” I asked. “Nothing,” he answered smiling suddenly, “I just need a few extra days to get it back to you.”
And so he did, and I can remember few moments where I felt as proud of someone as I did the day he crossed the stage. Failure is not the end of the story. It’s the first chapter, and one that is well worth reading! As 2 Corinthians tells us: “For when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10).
Turcotte is president of St. Mary’s University in Calgary.