When Does Failing Turn You Into a Failure?

The threat of failure is very different from the threat of being a failure. At the Creative Innovations conference I was just at, one of the strongest messages there was that we learn more from failure than we do from success, and that failure is inevitable if you are actually trying to be innovative. If you learn from your failures and your failure is the genuine result of something that didn’t work, rather than you sat around and watched it burn, then this is just something that happens, was the message from CI, and any other culture makes us overly-cautious and risk averse. As most of us know, however, we are more strongly encouraged to cover up our failures than to celebrate them – and we are frequently better off not trying in certain circumstances than failing.

At the recent Adelaide Conventicle, which I promise to write up very, very soon, Dr Raymond Lister presented an excellent talk on applying Neo-Piagetian concepts and framing to the challenges students face in learning programming. This is a great talk (which I’ve had the good fortune to see twice and it’s a mark of the work that I enjoyed it as much the second time) because it allows us to talk about failure to comprehend, or failure to put into practice, in terms of a lack of the underlying mechanism required to comprehend – at this point in the student’s development. As part of the steps of development, we would expect students to have these head-scratching moments where they are currently incapable of making any progress but, framing it within developmental stages, allows us to talk about moving students to the next stage, getting them out of this current failure mode and into something where they will achieve more. Once again, failure in this case is inevitable for most people until we and they manage to achieve the level of conceptual understanding where we can build and develop. More importantly, if we track how they fail, then we start to get an insight into which developmental stage they’re at.

One thing that struck me with Raymond’s talk, was that he starts off talking about “what ruined Raymond” and discussing the dire outcomes promised to him if he watched too much television, as it was to me for playing too many games, and it is to our children for whatever high tech diversion is the current ‘finger wagging’ harbinger of doom. In this case, ruination is quite clearly the threat of becoming a failure. However, this puts us in a strange position, because if failure is almost inevitable but highly valuable if managed properly and understood, what is it about being a failure that is so terrible? It’s like threatening someone that they’ll become too enthusiastic and unrestrained in their innovation!

I am, quelle surprise, playing with words here because to be a failure is to be classed as someone for whom success is no longer an option. If we were being precise, then we would class someone as a perpetual failure or, more simply, unsuccessful. This is, quite usually, the point at which it is acceptable to give up on someone – after all, goes the reasoning, we’re just pouring good money after bad, wasting our time, possibly even moving the deck chairs on the Titanic, and all those other expressions that allow us to draw that good old categorical line between us and others and put our failures into the “Hey, I was trying something new” basket and their failures into the “Well, he’s just so dumb he’d try something like that.” The only problem with this is that I’m really not sure that a lifetime of failure is a guaranteed predictor of future failure. Likely? Yeah, probably. So likely we can gamble someone’s life on it? No, I don’t believe so.

When I was failing courses in my first degree, it took me a surprisingly long time to work out how to fix it, most of which was down to the fact that (a) I had no idea how to study but (b) no-one around me was vaguely interested in the fact that I was failing. I was well on my way to becoming a perpetual failure, someone who had no chance of holding down a job let alone having a career, and it was a kind and fortuitous intervention that helped me. Now, with a degree of experience and knowledge, I can look back into my own patterns and see pretty much what was wrong with me – although, boy, would I have been a difficult cuss to work with. However, failing, which I have done since then and I will (no doubt) do again, has not appeared to have turned me into a failure. I have more failings than I care to count but my wife still loves me, my friends are happy to be seen with me and no-one sticks threats on my door at work so these are obviously in the manageable range. However, managing failure has been a challenging thing for me and I was pondering this recently – how people deal with being told that they’re wrong is very important to how they deal with failing to achieve something.

I’m reading a rather interesting, challenging and confronting, article on, and I cannot believe there’s a phrase for this, rage murders in American schools and workplaces, which claims that these horrifying acts are, effectively, failed revolts, which is with Mark Ames, the author of “Going Postal” (2005). Ames seems to believe that everything stems from Ronald Reagan (and I offer no opinion either way, I hasten to add) but he identifies repeated humiliation, bullying and inhumane conditions as taking ordinary people, who would not usually have committed such actions, and turning them into monstrous killing machines. Ames’ thesis is that this is not the rise of psychopathy but a rebellion against breaking spirit and the metaphorical enslavement of many of the working and middle class that leads to such a dire outcome. If the dominant fable of life is that success is all, failure is bad, and that you are entitled to success, then it should be, as Ames says in the article, exactly those people who are most invested in these cultural fables who would be the most likely to break when the lies become untenable. In the language that I used earlier, this is the most awful way to handle the failure of the fabric of your world – a cold and rational journey that looks like madness but is far worse for being a pre-meditated attempt to destroy the things that lied to you. However, this is only one type of person who commits these acts. The Monash University gunman, for example, was obviously delusional and, while he carried out a rational set of steps to eliminate his main rival, his thinking as to why this needed to happen makes very little sense. The truth is, as always, difficult and muddy and my first impression is that Ames may be oversimplifying in order to advance a relatively narrow and politicised view. But his language strikes me: the notion of the “repeated humiliation, bullying and inhumane conditions”, which appears to be a common language among the older, workplace-focused, and otherwise apparently sane humans who carry out such terrible acts.

One of the complaints made against the radio network at the heart of the recent Royal Hoax, 2DayFM, is that they are serial humiliators of human beings and show no regard for the general well-being of the people involved in their pranks – humiliation, inhumanity and bullying. Sound familiar? Here I am, as an educator, knowing that failure is going to happen for my students and working out how to bring them up into success and achievement when, on one hand, I have a possible set of triggers where beating down people leads to apparent madness, and at least part of our entertainment culture appears to delight in finding the lowest bar and crawling through the filth underneath it. Is telling someone that they’re a failure, and rubbing it in for public enjoyment, of any vague benefit to anyone or is it really, as I firmly believe, the best way to start someone down a genuinely dark path to ruination and resentment.

Returning to my point at the start of this (rather long) piece, I have met Raymond several times and he doesn’t appear even vaguely ruined to me, despite all of the radio, television and Neo-Piagetian contextual framing he employs. The message from Raymond and CI paints failure as something to be monitored and something that is often just a part of life – a stepping stone to future success – but this is most definitely not the message that generally comes down from our society and, for some people, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that their inability to handle the crushing burden of permanent classification as a failure is something that can have catastrophic results. I think we need to get better at genuinely accepting failure as part of trying, and to really, seriously, try to lose the classification of people as failures just because they haven’t yet succeeded at some arbitrary thing that we’ve defined to be important.

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