On failure

I was recently digging around through a bunch of links I had bookmarked, and came across an article by Carol Zou, who I had the pleasure of knowing when we lived and worked in the same neighborhood in Dallas, Texas. Carol is an artist whose primary form of art is empowering communities to create their own art. (If that sounds strange to you at all, sit with it a while. It’s actually a really helpful way of looking at artistic expression.) Anyhow, she published an article last year called Who is Allowed to Fail? Some things she notices:

  • A recently-arrived refugee must prove their business idea is foolproof in order to receive a $5,000 loan, but a middle class 18 year old can take out a student loan for ten times that without so much as a conversation about how they intend to pay it back, or even how they plan to successfully graduate.
  • A bank can get a bailout after making bad decisions with their money, but a renter will be evicted from their apartment when they start missing payments.

Anyhow, I don’t want to summarize the entire article, because it’s Carol’s work and you should read it for yourself. But it definitely got me thinking about the privilege of failure.

Part of this is the privilege of defining success and failure for ourselves. In the the Baha’i community, we’ve been encouraged to see past “narrow conceptions of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ that breed freneticism or paralyze volition.” We talk about a learning process, an experiment, rather than a failure. Failure to move forward and learn is a problem. Failure to adhere to a formula for results is not.

Artists get this. They’ll tell you about a “sketch” or a “draft.” It’s one of many, and we’re lucky when we’re in a community of others who get that.

But this freedom to focus on learning over results is a matter of privilege. When I was teaching at a school a decade ago, I was in charge of the Writing Club. At first, the 12- and 13-year-olds in my class made almost no progress with their writing. No matter how hard I worked to develop a meaningful prompt, they would spend inordinate amounts of time coming up to me and asking me to spell words for them, or erasing their handwriting and re-doing it neatly. They were shocked when I told them that we’re only making drafts here, that I cared not one bit about their spelling or their margins at this stage. That they could have as much paper as they wanted, that I would personally go to the store and buy everyone new notebooks if they ran out of space, that they could try and try again, in search of powerful language. That they could fail.

Children without paper who are graded on their work don’t get to say, “Oh, I don’t need immediate results, I just want to learn about improving my writing.”

After around four months, they did start writing some beautiful things, until I got sick and another teacher came in and scolded them for their sloppy work. That was a failure of mine that still weighs on me. I never did learn how to protect them from the needless critique of adults flush with power.

People with money for more notebook paper are allowed to fail. People with power are allowed to fail. People with social capital are allowed to fail. We expect it. We respect it. But not when it’s the wrong kind of people making the mistakes.

It would be really easy to let this kind of pervasive social attitude slip into the community-building process. That the educated, the wealthy, the powerful have the right to try and fail and reflect and learn and move forward, while those who are without need to be cared for and patronized and protected from their own failures-in-waiting, or abandoned to deal with the consequences of their lack of continual success.

In this kind of scenario, we get teachers who can snap at children, while children who lash out are expelled from the class. We get youth who are fed “education” bite by bite, without ever being invited to be protagonists in their own learning. We get adults whose lifetime of acquired skill and wisdom is never put to use, either for the fear of what response it might elicit, or from the assumption that it simply doesn’t exist.

We know the attitude is insidious. And as GI Joe says, “knowing is half the battle.”

But the other half, the half where knowledge gets put into action? That is the half of the battle where people tend to get hurt.

I want to think that we’re learning to write a rough draft of a community, in the truest sense of that word. But it’s not something you can build perfectly, then invite people inside, based on your limited vision of utopia. The community is the building process. And no matter how much paper it takes, we need everyone to have the chance to pick up their pencil and write their future, failing as they go.


Background image for the “On failure” graphic by Pink Sherbet Photography from USA (Free crumpled paper texture for layers) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons