On Failure

Oct 10, 2014 9:17:17 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, Dr. Woolf delves into the topic of failure: what values are used to define it, some life examples, historical examples and lessons learned (or not, as the case may sometimes be).

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At a recent “Leadership Roundtable” I was asked to speak on the subject of failure. When I asked why I had been invited to do so, I anticipated an answer that referenced my erudition and eloquence. Instead I was told that the general consensus was that I was “good at it”! I decided that I did not want to deconstruct the implications of that but it did lead me to ponder the ways in which we frequently contemplate failure and, far less frequently, enjoy success.

Most obviously, failure is no fun at all and for the most part we learn nothing from it. My friend Henry has been married five times. Clearly he has learned nothing. I certainly have never learned from failure but have consistently made more or less the same mistakes with some cheerful panache throughout my life.

Sometimes the failure to learn is more significant. Between 1839 and 1919, the British, in sustained stupidity and without any sense of the futility of their actions, fought three Afghan Wars. That consistent historical failure was oddly overlooked by the Russians and the Americans many decades later. A tradition of idiocy was maintained. Consider also France: one of the lessons of WW1 was that static and inflexible defensive lines were incredibly wasteful of human life and led to cataclysmic losses. In the 1930s, the French decided to build the Maginot Line – a static and inflexible defensive line that, when viewed face on, was profoundly impressive and impenetrable. In WW2, the Germans simply walked around it.

Photo: One and Other Help for Heros by Feggy Art

It seems evident that we do not learn much from failure.

It is also far too reductive to see success and failure as absolute opposites. It is, for example, easy enough to succeed if you set goals low enough. I have consistently managed over many years to find my shoes in the morning (sometimes after a bit of time). I have however failed to understand theoretical physics. It is the scale of aspiration and realism of expectation that matters. We have students who (after one semester of media studies) are bemused by the fact that they are not able to have an internship running the BBC. If we set the standards against which we measure success at too low or too high a level, the outcomes are likely to be both entirely predictable and entirely unimportant.

A key question is not whether you failed but whether the thing you failed at was a realistic aspiration in the first place (I wanted to play soccer for England). Another key factor is whether or not failure bothers you at all. In the case of theoretical physics (and French, and the glockenspiel, as you shall shortly learn) my anguish is in full remission – those failures are not remotely critical to me, or to the French, or to aficionados of the glockenspiel. The distinction between success and failure is anyway entirely relative. Claude Monet said “My life has been nothing but a failure” – not compared to mine, Claude!

Photo: Bronze sculpture of Claude Monet by Classic Film

My late French teacher, as further illustration, wrote on my school report: “After great effort has achieved mediocrity.” That great man understood the relativity of failure. My “Music” report in the same year, 1960, indicated that I had “not yet mastered the glockenspiel”. Rhetorically, this was only a pale echo of my French report but it contained the same essential implications: “You may struggle forever but you are never going to be a French-speaking maestro of the glockenspiel”. (The regrettable truth is I had certainly failed musically but had made little or no effort – to hell with glockenspiels I say).

In a professional context, these matters are probably more significant. In teaching and learning processes we talk of inputs and outcomes as if what we do is some kind of industrial process. In a liberal learning model, outcomes cannot be so easily measured. I think of Dorothy on the yellow brick road seeking to find the Wizard in the great city of Oz. On that road, she learns many important things: Kansas is not the world; reality is more complicated than she suspected; compassion, courage and intelligence may be found in unexpected forms; love does not reside in false expressions of devotion (the same lesson learnt more painfully by King Lear); bravery is more than bluster or bravado; a capacity for reason may be expressed in surprising contexts. When she reaches Oz she discovers that the Wizard is a charlatan: an illusion made by mirrors from whom there is nothing much to learn. If the outcome is not what was anticipated, is that necessarily failure? Dorothy’s experiences demonstrate that, in Socratic or liberal education, learning may be embedded in the journey more than in an anticipated end, and is not an industrial process with predictable inputs leading inexorably to anticipated outputs: the pursuit of wisdom is not along a straight path. We do not yet know what we may learn as we meander along the yellow brick road towards the distant mountains that surround the Land of Oz. How then can we predetermine what success or failure means?

Many of us though are engaged in tasks less daunting than the search for the Wizard of Oz and in these contexts failure is, I repeat, no fun. I failed my driving test four times. I bet on a horse that died in the Grand National. What these failures taught me was a) do not hit a tree while driving b) ignore racing tips from friends with holes in their shoes (that alone should have been a clue as to credibility).

Photo: Dorothy by Rita M

Certainly questions of success and failure raise ambiguities and ethical conundrums. In Tropic of Cancer, for example, Henry Miller rejects the nature of success as framed in an American myth of the self-made man, a tradition that reaches from Horatio Alger to Donald Trump:

It is now the fall of my second year in Paris. I was sent here for a reason I have not yet been able to fathom. I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.

The protagonist is clearly the exact inversion of the self-made man. He is, in a sense, an un-made man. He rejects commercial values completely, reveals a profound, contented aimlessness. The narrator in Paris embraces failure in a landscape of liberation where material aspirations are discarded.

In contrast, a confusion of spiritual aspiration with materialist ambition is dramatically embodied in the figure of Ben, the ghostly brother of Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. Pioneer dreams, the frontier myth, are translated into commercial values:

Father was a very great and a very wild-hearted man. We would start in Boston, and he’d toss the whole family into the wagon, and then he’d drive the team right across the country; through Ohio, and Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, and all the Western states. And we’d stop in the towns and sell the flutes that he’d made on the way. Great inventor, Father. With one gadget he made more in a week than a man like you could make in a lifetime.

Ben represents the transformation of aspiration into money: “Why, boys, when I was seventeen I walked into the jungle, and when I was twenty-one I walked out. And by God I was rich”. Thus, when we think of success, is money the measure? If not, what is? Whose values matter most, Henry Miller’s protagonist or Arthur Miller’s Ben, or the executives from Enron who were, after all, “the smartest guys in the room”.

Photo: Arthur Miller by Cliff

Similarly, what values are used to define failure? There are some simple measures: the horse died is a simple one; if challenged to play the glockenspiel the outcome will be a discordant mess; reviled by French waiters, I slink ineffective and mute around Paris. Those are good examples of situations in which failure is simply miserable. For most of us though, life is rarely as simple as that. When students study abroad they engage at some very basic level with ambiguity. Like Dorothy, what they thought was true is challenged and subverted. They learn is to be unsure, uneasy and disturbed. Babyish concepts like success and failure become far more complex propositions as they (and we) stumble towards adult maturity: that state of paradoxical confusion we sometimes call wisdom.

Thanks Mike!

Topics: International Education