The Values of Failing

“I do think that failure is a valuable part of life. We learn from it, benefit from it, and sometimes, have to reconcile ourselves to it.”

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In his essay, “Will America Double-Down…” (Nation of Change 21 November), regular contributor Robert Becker questions his long-held assumption that we, as individuals or perhaps as a society, learn from failure. Rather than dwell on the contradictory epigraphs—“Once burned, twice shy,” or “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me,” as opposed to “If at first you don’t succeed….”, he extrapolates from this a well-wrought dissertation on Donald Trump and the current sad state of affairs in the American electorate. I have no quibble with him about that or with his conclusion. However, in the course of his argument, Mr. Becker notes how a low grade in freshman biology persuaded him that he was not destined for a science career. The extended implication is that after a lifetime of failure as an entrepreneur and businessman, Donald Trump might well have determined that the Chief Executive’s job was not for him. Who could disagree?

As a life-long educator, myself, though, I gave Mr. Becker’s illustration some thought; as a life-long writer and fairly well-published author, it also gave me pause to consider my own experiences with failure. Failure for a professional writer is, indeed, so much a part of the process that the occasional success would make enviable a major league batter’s .300 average. In the end, though, I am not so sure I agree with his premise argument; that sent me off in a direction somewhat divergent from American politics, for a moment, and to consider the vitally necessary role that failure plays in our lives.

Like Mr. Becker, my performance in undergraduate science and math classes sent me rocketing into the humanities, but I initially had little stunning success there, either. My writing abilities, crudely fashioned as they were in a small-town school with rudimentary instruction were hardly up to collegiate snuff. Failure was most genuinely possible. Freshman English was widely regarded in that time as the great winnowing course, the “flunk-out” course that sent many an aspiring collegian back home to find honest work. The problem was that flunking out in that era and for a young man of my general health and circumstance meant that I would most likely be soon bound not for home but for Vietnam, if I lost my II-S deferment; at that particular moment, men of my general size and hostile indifference to military discipline was a virtual guarantee that I would, as the popular song intoned, “come home in a box.” Failure, in sum, was not a practical option. But success—ah, that was hard-won.

My first major paper in College English was due the week before the Thanksgiving Break, when my friends were to depart for the coast and a rented beach house and a long-assembled stockpile of libations and comestibles. On that Wednesday morning, my essay was returned with the mark of F. I had made some less-than-sterling grades in my brief academic life, but I had never received an F—never actually failed at anything to do with school. I was stunned, nonplussed, horrified, standing there, my bag packed and ready to run for the beach for a weekend of orgiastic debauchery, so I immediately sought out the professor to get an explanation for what was obviously a misjudgment on his part. He was quick to disabuse me of any notion I supposed of his error, though. He patiently and explicitly pointed out the numerous mistakes in grammar, mechanics, style, and organization that plagued the essay. “I’d flunked it by the second paragraph,” he said. I asked if I could write it over. He said, “Certainly. Do so, and I’ll be happy to mark it for you. But it won’t change your midterm grade. You have a final paper yet. I suggest you spend the weekend studying your mistakes, rewrite it, and hand it to me no later than Monday.” He then lent me a grammar book, advised me to “learn my own language,” and wished me a good Thanksgiving. I canceled out of the beach trip and remained, the sole resident of an otherwise empty dorm on a holiday weekend, studying, learning that which I already should already have known, rewriting, and, on Monday, turning in a revision. I wound up with a B- in the course, having scored an A on the final paper. In sum, I learned from that experience with failure.

This anecdote is not emblematic. Nor is it a convincing argument for the valuable lessons of failure. However, it does illustrate something. In most of life’s most important endeavors, we are not given “do-overs.” We can retry marriage after one or more failures, but once a child is born, we’re more or less stuck with it to do what we can to succeed as parents. We can move from job to job until we find the right one; but we seldom retool entirely, moving from, say, the humanities back to the sciences when we discover that a gerund isn’t a small furry creature children keep in plastic cages or that a participle isn’t a root vegetable. In matters of importance—including money—we aren’t allowed to take an unacceptable failure and rework it at leisure for full credit, or for any credit. You write a check when you have insufficient funds, you don’t get a sympathetic call from the bank inviting you to write a revised version for cash. A traffic cop doesn’t say, “You failed to stop at that red light. Back up and do it again.” Bosses don’t routinely say, “Hey, you didn’t finish your work, but that’s all right. We’ll pay you, anyway.” You might get a warning ticket from a cop, you might get a second or third chance from some benevolent supervisor, but generally, if you consistently fail, you lose.

Some decades ago, I found myself seated at an academic conference wherein we were being informed of a new pedagogical theory regarding student composition, one that was finding traction nation-wide. We were told that the “new” and “most widely accepted” method would be predicated on the notion of “revision technique.” In the proffered model, students would draft an essay and submit it; the professor would mark it, return it with a tentative grade, or a suggested grade; then the student could revise it, using the corrections as a guideline and resubmit it for a final grade. In some cases, two or three such revisions might be undertaken, enough for the student to receive an acceptable mark. “This cuts down on the rate of failure,” we were assured.

I had several reactions to this. Considering that I was teaching five writing sections each week with twenty-to-twenty-five students in each section and that I was expected to obtain eight five-hundred-word-minimum essays from each one in the fifteen weeks of the semester, if I followed this program, I would very likely be blind, dead, or driven insane by the end of the term. Secondly, I quickly determined that if students were aware of this process in advance—And how could they not be?—then absolutely none of the first or even second or third drafts submitted would have been prepared with any care, any sense of proofreading or self-editing, any compositional application whatsoever. They would be dashed off the top of whatever appendage passed for the student’s cranium, quickly and badly typed up, and thrust toward me for what amounted to copy-editing, so then I would have the privilege of grading them “for real” later on, after they’d corrected all the mistakes.

The logic there wasn’t sound. Failure or the threat of failure is vital to the whole inducement to succeed. Remove the possibility of failure, partial or total, from the equation, then what’s the point of trying? Why not just wait it out, go through the motions with sufficient frequency until the whole thing became too tedious to matter? That wasn’t a success. That was merely endurance.

I wasn’t about to buy into this nonsense. For the next forty-odd years, I maintained a simple policy with regard to written work. My syllabus said, “If you want help or instruction on an essay, bring it to me in advance. We’ll review it together, identify any problems, and you can correct them. Once it’s due, though, it’s due. The grade it earns will be the grade it receives. No make-ups. And no late work.” 

I was the lone hold-out in every department in which I worked. But I also received, on average, far better work, more thoughtfully and carefully prepared; students who knew they were deficient in grammar and mechanics became steady fixtures in my office—in advance of due dates. I did fail a number of students, but I also passed a great many and with higher marks than they might otherwise have received. I came to understand that it was better to teach someone how to do something right than to let them do it wrong over and over again, until they merely run out the clock. I also applied this policy to graduate seminars with good effect. The anticipation of revision for credit, I realized, just anticipates failure. There’s enough failure available in the world without creating the opportunity for more. 

In the past few decades, a disturbing trend has entered our society, not just on the academic level but throughout every walk of life. We used to hand out trophies, ribbons, certificates, game balls, etc. to youthful members of a team, a musical ensemble, a theater troupe, any group endeavor to one or maybe two individuals whose work, performance, abilities stood out and made the entire group look good. Sort of MVP awards for a select few who excelled, who succeeded and, therefore, contributed directly to the success of the whole. These days, we hand out participation trophies to everyone who shows up, even to those who don’t show up regularly, even to some who don’t show up at all, and to those whose participation may have been more of a hindrance than a help to the group’s achievement. We watch kids from toddlers to high school varsity athletes wander away from a final game or performance with some trinket of participation in hand, congratulating them for, mostly, just signing up to be a part of things, whether they made any contribution or not.

What does this teach? That merely breathing is sufficient to receive honorable recognition? I know another bromide that we often evoke, particularly for instruction of the young: “It’s not whether you win or lose that counts,” we tell them. “It’s how you play the game.” Nonsense. The first sentence of the first page of the youth league baseball rule book I used when coaching my son’s team reads: “The object of the game of baseball is to score more runs than your opponent.” It didn’t say one word in the next 137 pages of rules and regulations about “how to play the game.” A game is about winning. Winning is about succeeding. You can still lose some games, even when you fall short of success, just by outlasting everyone else. But there’s no victory in that. It’s a consolation prize.

I suspect that the same is true for all sports, individual and team sports. I know it’s true of the rules for Scrabble, Monopoly, even checkers, jacks, hopscotch, even tag—who wants to be “It” all the time? They’re all about how to win. All that we do is about winning. Failure is not why we play, not why we try. But it is axiomatic: For every winner, there has to be a loser.

I have reached an age where I see many of my colleagues, friends, associates receiving “Lifetime Achievement” awards. I am sometimes nonplussed by this, since in many, many cases, the individual’s main achievement is merely still to be alive, that whatever list of mostly inconsequential endeavors are read out at the ceremony are pitifully meager by comparison to many, sometimes most others’ who have done so much more, but who passed on into obscurity with dignified anonymity. In many cases the laurels proffered are truly a matter of recognizing the abject failure of a person to do anything more significant than to draw breath for a set number of years and to manage, in all that time, not to have offended the wrong people.

We do this all the time—at retirement parties for people we are relieved to learn are finally quitting, at moving parties for people we are grateful to see relocate, at weddings when we see people find someone so they will cease to be a burden of needy loneliness to friends and family. Still, we seem to feel that if everyone doesn’t get a party, a trophy, a raft of insincere cards, meaningless toasts, and useless gifts, we have somehow let ourselves down. Excellence, achievement, success don’t really matter. It’s the mere participation that counts. Even at funerals, we see people who were routinely castigated, lampooned, vilified, detested in life suddenly lauded for being sterling people who will be sorely missed in death. I sometimes think that the most genuine but never expressed feeling at a funeral is one of abject relief. But in all these ceremonies, the toasts, tributes, and eulogies flow like honey. And everybody gets them, regardless of what utter failures they were in their work, their relationships, their endeavors, their whole lives.

So it’s not just youth. It’s a whole society.

We forget that Herman Melville died thinking he was a total failure as a writer, that Thomas Paine was denied the right to vote in New York, was disowned by Washington, lived out his final days in dire poverty; his bones were never properly interred at all, but somehow were lost and probably discarded or ground for fertilizer. Success and failure sometimes become reductive terms. At the end of his life, the impoverished Paine might well have exchanged being studied by every eighth-grader in the country for a decent meal and a set of clean linens. It’s not worth forgetting that a Roman centurion had a slave in his chariot as he rode through the Eternal City in his Triumph whispering in his ear, “memento mori.” That was less a reminder that death is the great leveler, and more that fame—or success—is fleeting.

We live in a consumer society. Today’s successes are tomorrow’s failures. It’s not that they’re not as good, as worthwhile, admirable as ever; it’s that they’re simply not new and improved. No matter how fast one runs, there’s always somebody faster. Today’s dream car is tomorrow’s junker; today’s trophy is tomorrow’s dust-collector.

Over the door of the library in the university where I obtained my doctoral degree (in literature, by the way), there was a Latin slogan etched in the archway over a side door, the one we all used for after-hours access to our carrells. It read: victoria est non satis. alii est deficere—“Success is not enough. Others must fail.” This was a source of some ironic gibes and comments among us graduate students, all of whom were terrified of failure. But over time, I realized there was deeper wisdom in that aphorism. The element of failure is essential for success to have any meaning. Just as there can be no good without evil, no sweetness without bitterness, no joy without grief, there can be no victory without defeat, or at least the possibility of defeat.  Otherwise, we never learn anything. If everyone is a champion, then where’s the glory in the triumph? A contest can have but one winner. A pageant only one beauty. A competition only one victor. There can only be one “best” of anything, only one a single individual can achieve and hold the honor of absolute achievement. Ties aren’t allowed; they’re merely comparative. There’s only one superlative. Everyone else is an “also ran.” Our primary goal has to be success; if we genuinely do not fear failure, we will never achieve meaningful success. And if we don’t learn from our failed attempts, then how can we possibly ever savor the euphoria of succeeding?

So I do think that failure is a valuable part of life. We learn from it, benefit from it, and sometimes, have to reconcile ourselves to it. We don’t have to like it, but we can still profit from it. Sometimes, the lessons of failure are not sustained very long (Witness how our calamitous and deadly adventure in Vietnam taught us nothing as we happily demolished Iraq to no good purpose and bogged down in the morass of Afghanistan. World War II did not remember World War I. We’ve forgotten the horrors of McCarthyism and the dangers of unfounded allegation as absolute judgment). We also haven’t yet learned the dangers of electing men and women to office who are beholden to the rich and powerful and their own egos more than to the people and ideals of the Republic. But just because we often forget our past mistakes and repeat them doesn’t mean that the value of having tried and failed is negated. It may just mean that we have to fail repeatedly to convince us that, perhaps, rather than pounding our heads against the same wall with incessant stubbornness, we might just need to stay home and study. 

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My background is that I am a well-published novelist, essayist, scholar, and literary critic, the author over 1,000 publications ranging from scholarly studies to short fiction and poems, essays, critical reviews and twenty published volumes, including nine novels and a collection of short fiction. I am recently retired after serving as Professor of Arts and Humanities at the University of Texas at Dallas, where I also served as Director of Creative Writing. I hold academic degrees from the University of Texas at Austin, Trinity University, and a PhD from the University of Tulsa. My published novels include The Vigil, Agatite, Franklin's Crossing, Players, Monuments, and The Tentmaker, Ars Poetica: A Post-Modern Parable, Vox Populi: A Novel of Everyday Life, and Threading the Needle; I also have published a collection of essays, Of Snakes and Sex and Playing in the Rain, and a collection of short fiction, Sandhill County Lines. My nonfiction books, authored and edited, include Stage Left: The Development of the American Social Drama, Taking Stock: A Larry McMurtry Casebook, A Hundred Years of Heroes: A Centennial History of the Southwestern Exposition and Livestock Show, Twenty Questions: Answers for the Inquiring Writer, The Plays of Jack London, and Hero of a Hundred Fights: The Western Dime Novels of Ned Buntline. My novels, short fiction, and essays have won numerous regional and national awards, including the Violet Crown Award, which I have has received twice for fiction, and theSpur Award for short fiction as well as the Spur Award for Creative Nonfiction; I was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1993; I am a National Endowment for the Arts Fellow and is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters.

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