Failure: a love story

015 - A moment of weakness

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.

18 thoughts on “Failure: a love story

  1. Won­der­ful post, Amy. You may have come across the fol­low­ing NYTimes arti­cle from 2011, but if not, I wanted to share it with you and your read­ers. Paul Tough wrote “What if the secret to suc­cess is fail­ure?” and the Times pub­lished it online 9/14/2011. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing read and includes infor­ma­tion about a “grit” self-evaluation “test” that appar­ently is a good pre­dic­tor of future career suc­cess. It might be fun to start your sem­i­nar by hav­ing your stu­dents take the sim­ple grit test. Here’s a link to the arti­cle: .

    • Thank you so much! The NYT piece you men­tion sounds vaguely famil­iar, and I’ll def­i­nitely look at it again. Sounds like some­thing that belongs in my files–and my class, if I teach it again. Much appreciated.

  2. Won­der­ful essay Amy! Fail­ure is a great learn­ing expe­ri­ence. Harder is learn­ing from fail­ure because it requires humil­ity, which some­thing we are con­di­tioned not to feel. Espe­cially in my busi­ness, where every­one thinks they must be “win­ners,” and careers are built in a straight­line of a series of suc­cesses. So smaller fail­ures are explained away and not learned from, because of ego.…next thing you know your orga­ni­za­tion has lost bil­lions of dollars…

  3. I’m think­ing Esalen work­shop, Amy — or Omega. Who doesn’t want to write their life story anew with you guid­ing them?

  4. Excel­lent, as always!

    F. Scott Fitzger­ald wrote an essay about the dan­gers of early suc­cess. The gist, as I recall, is that it makes it much harder to han­dle fail­ure that enevitably hap­pens later. Of course, if suc­cess comes too late, you may be too bit­ter to appre­ci­ate it. Tim­ing, as they say, is everything.

    I wish I’d had a class like yours when I was in col­lege. It would have helped make sense of a lot of things.

  5. Mar­velous post! His­tory can­not be sim­ply one damned thing after another. Con­comi­tant events have to be taken into account to make a great story and most of those events are fail­ures of all sorts, the meaty inter­est­ing parts of our stories.

  6. Long ago, Jules Feif­fer and I had a long talk about fail­ure. Some of the inter­view is here:

    He said, “One of the things that I learned about myself over the years, hav­ing been beaten up a lot, is that it’s not fail­ure that counts, but how you treat fail­ure and what your atti­tude is going to be about it. Because, of course, if you do any­thing that is of value, or — for that mat­ter — if you screw up, you are going to fail. One way or another, you are going to fail — some­times for the good things and some­times for the bad things.”

    It’s great that you taught this class. We all need to get more com­fort­able with failure.

      • Yes, and just like when you sit with any other sort of feeling/experience, you can see other facets of fail­ure — or other oppor­tu­ni­ties in the story you’re telling about your­self. I’m not say­ing that very well. Feiffer’s nov­els for mid­dle read­ers and adults (The Man in the Ceil­ing and A Bar­rel of Laughs) are very good at explor­ing inner land­scapes like this. I had a huge break­through with my busi­ness recently after months of feel­ing like a fail­ure for not being able to do every­thing I was try­ing to do. I sat with this weeks — in tears — and finally started ask­ing dif­fer­ent ques­tions about my busi­ness prob­lem. Sud­denly, a busi­ness that I thought was dying pre­sented itself to me as a very promis­ing, sol­vent ven­ture if I just tweaked a few things. All of my energy has been returned to me. So… oppor­tu­nity and relief were found inside the “fail­ure.” And Feif­fer is great at see­ing the gifts inside dif­fi­cult experiences.

  7. This is really awe­some. It’s funny, I stum­bled on this famous quote this morn­ing. Your post seems very timely.

    Suc­cess is not final, fail­ure is not fatal: it is the courage to con­tinue that counts.
    Win­ston Churchill

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