When I told my students that our final class would focus on the topic of failure, there were winces all around. But in the end, most of them told me that this unit was their favorite. “Next time, why don’t you start the class with this?” one student even asked.
The idea of spending a session on failure came to me after listening to an NPR piece about its prominent place in the lives of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. “This is, like, failure central. We are, like, connoisseurs of failure, experts in both avoiding it and living with it ongoing,” said Paul Graham, founder of the start-up funder Y Combinator.
The nine students in my “Living Strategically” seminar are members of UMass Amherst’s Commonwealth Honors College. They are talented, articulate, and thoughtful, with high aspirations and transcripts filled with As. All of them are preparing to apply for post-graduate fellowships. They have lots of experience with success, not so much with failure.
They reminded me of myself at their age, and I wanted to offer them something that would have been useful to me then: The idea that failure can be a fertile starting place. That it’s a natural part of life — temporary, not defining. It took me a long time to learn this. I’d like to think that my students are well on their way to learning it now.
Our jumping off point was journalist Rick Newman’s Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success, which I previously wrote about here. The book had resonated with me when I read it last year – Newman shares my curiosity about the underpinnings of resilience – and happily my students loved it, one describing it as the “punchline” of the semester. In particular, they responded to Newman’s personal story of climbing back from setbacks. The rebounder as role model: It’s something we could use more of.
Perhaps more than anything, I wanted to drive home the notion that failure doesn’t have to be such a big deal. Like the Wizard of Oz – “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!” — failure isn’t really what it claims to be. Behind the curtain is this little guy, madly ginning up the special effects to create a lot of noise. And because there’s nothing like humor to put things into perspective, I had students watch Laura Zigman’s “Failure is the New Success” video, as funny as it is true. Point made.
Finally, we read a piece that I’d serendipitously stumbled across at work the week before – New Yorker writer and surgeon (and Harvard School of Public Health professor) Atul Gawande’s beautiful meditation on “Failure and Rescue,” delivered as a commencement address at Williams College. Gawande observes that good hospitals have lots of things go wrong – as many as their less successful peers. Research has shown that great hospitals “didn’t fail less. They rescued more.” (This piece also won student accolades, with one saying that she’d sent it on to a number of friends.)
A major focus of the “Living Strategically” seminar is writing a personal story, and throughout the semester, we spent a lot of time talking about crafting a compelling narrative. What makes something interesting? What makes it boring? In a fascinating Harvard Business Review piece, Herminia Ibarra and Kent Lineback reflect on why so many career changers are terrible storytellers. The answer: They rely too much on chronology, failing to craft stories that tap into sources of continuity and coherence. They fail to choose story forms that suit their tales of reinvention.
Stories are powerful. We shape our stories, but our stories then shape us. That has never been clearer to me than it’s been since I started Plan B Nation. Here is what I wish for my students, for all of us: That our success stories are vibrant and expansive enough to incorporate—and honor—our failures.
© 2012, amy gutman. All rights reserved.