As a society, we tend to shun those who fail.
The homeless person on the street? Someone who has failed in managing money. The recluse who prefers the company of books more than people? Someone who has failed to gain social skills. The 49ers? A team that failed in front of the Seahawks (haha jk)
Usually, a definition of failure is good. Because people don’t enjoy failing, or the negative connotations that are attached, they will work their butts off in order to do better. I could put in remarkable effort to finish a project mere hours before the deadline, even as I remained stuck for the proceeding week. Failure serves as a reminder to work harder and smarter, to do more with our lives. Without the bitter, there would be no sweet.
But over time, failure has become twisted and changed, bringing about much more negative consequences than the positive lessons. As a society, we seem to emphasize more on the failure of a person instead of the failure of a path, leading to very much undesired repercussions, as discussed below.
1: Failure is inevitable.
In most events, there can only be 1 winner, but many, many losers. Any competition you go to, any standard that you set for yourself, there is a good chance that you couldn’t reach it.
But that’s okay!
Although a competition’s main purpose is to find the best whatever, that is not its only purpose. Instead, events, tests, competitions, races, they can all be used to learn and grow yourself. They can serve to set a benchmark for your own ability, revealing what positive and negative attributes you may have, as well as showing you ways to improve. My favorite part of the Imagine Tomorrow Science Competition was seeing how much energy and effort other people put into their projects, and thinking, wow, could I do that? It’s an arena of battle, but instead of being a life-or-death situation, it is but another stepping stone upon the path of life.
But today, it almost seems as if a failure is equivalent to being impaled by a spear. The doubt cast upon self-worth and the public shame often leads people to avoid failures altogether, and only play on their strengths.
Too often do I hear my classmates say, “Well, I didn’t take that class because I knew I would fail”, or “I didn’t do (insert interesting activity here) because I knew I wouldn’t do well, and what is the point?”
That isn’t an okay excuse.
When we consider it disgraceful to show a more vulnerable side of ourselves, it is equivalent to being so proud in ourselves and our own talent. How? Because if we don’t admit our capacity for error, we would be erasing the most human side of us away.
For me, I remember failures much better than any sweet tastes of victory. Who cares about the class officer elections last year? I barely remember the speech I have, other than my mini parody of “price tag” which was honestly quite hilarious. But I still remember clearly the failure of my freshmen run for class office, and how awkward I was at a new school. Does it really matter my APCS grade? What I remember is our disaster of a “Hunt the Wumpus” project, and the lessons it taught me in terms of time organization and leadership.
Failures are uncomfortable, but they are a natural part of life. Those who reject it, reject their best qualities.
2: In order to not fail, we sacrifice our humanity.
We have been reading in ToK about confirmation biases, and the integrity of experiments. What was really interesting for me was the implication for science; that in order to be approved for grants and tenure and everything, you have to show things that work.
Clearly, there is a bit of intuitive sense here. Why would universities throw money at things that would never be proven true? But the truth is, real science isn’t about finding an answer. It’s about asking an interesting question!
In science, the really fascinating ideas come from people who dare to asks questions that don’t have real basis in fact, or at least isn’t solidly proven yet. What would be the point of asking the same question a hundred million ways and getting a hundred million of the same answer? But our society would punish those who don’t seem to ask the “correct” question, or the one that is actually true.
Could you imagine how frustrating and convoluted that must be for the experimenters? Out of the infinite number of wrong questions out there, they have to pick the “correct” one in order to gain funding to go what they love! It’s no wonder that people would rather improve on ideas rather than come up with brand new ones, or maybe have a confirmation bias for what they believe is true.
On a practical level, there are things that are difficult to work with. For example, imagine if we built the Large Hadron Collider, a 7.5 billion euro project, and got no conclusive result. How disappointing would that be?
Whoops, we did. It’s called the Tecatron, a now closed particle accelerator operated by Fermilab with costs of around 120 million US dollars. It came close to discovering the Higgs, but just wasn’t good enough.
That’s why I so admire physicists, the ability to move on past equipment failures and the willingness to seek more even in the face of opposition.
On a different note, people would often cheat, change or number fudge in order to get that desired result. It could just be so tempting to publish a report heralding a new era in medical science, if only the data for trial one and two were a little bit higher. I mean, who would notice?
And so, we lose ourselves in trying to prove ideas. We forget the purpose of science in favor of the more concrete validation from our peers and from society.
There is something at school that we students and teachers jokingly call the “little green checkmark” syndrome. We use a program called webassign for a large portion of our science homework, and it provides immediate validation on the accuracy of your answer. Honestly, it is quite an amazing tool, even with server downtimes. But what tends to happen is that students try to find ways around the system, by asking others for the correct answer, by testing answers on a friend’s account, by googling the question and finding it on yahoo answers. Students can become more dedicated to the green checkmark than they are to learning itself.
3: People fear failure
I’ve been watching a lot of TED talks lately, in part to choose some to air during our TEDxRedmond event, but also in part because, wow, there are some wickedly cool people out there. One that really caught my attention was the 100 Days of Rejection one, seen here.
For those who don’t have time to spare the 12 minute talk, the author goes on a 100 day quest to be rejected in 100 different ways, in order to be confident and able to accept rejection when it comes. Because the truth is, it won’t always be smooth sailing. Sometimes, the most important lesson is to know what to do after a rejection.
Fearing failure is good in small portions; it is part of our survival instinct, as well as a driver for societal improvement. But, as with so many other topics, it has grown to be of a paralyzing nature.
One such example is a recent math quiz that I took. I am currently enrolled in IB mathematics Higher Level, one of the most rigorous math courses at our school, a step above calculus. For the first quiz of the year, I scored a resounding 46%. Ouch.
I would provide explanations for this low score, but this isn’t about my math abilities here. Instead, it was my reaction, and how I thought others treated me afterwards. Personally, I was a bit crushed. I knew that HL maths was tough, but not like this! I started doubting my own ability in math, which was made worse by reputation. Too often that week did I have the conversation where someone would ask me how I did on the quiz, and I would make a face and say “not so good”, only for someone else to good-heartedly respond “Haha you probably only missed two points.” More than anything, it was the response that others expected better of me, and I had failed.
But for me, that failure was beneficial. It allowed me to put some 20 hours into reviewing integration that week, and a solid 94% on the makeup quiz and a 97% on the following test, one of the few high scores in the class. Failure forced me to review reality, which is good. What wasn’t was my initial response of dread and despair.
So how do you comfort someone who thinks that they had failed? From experience, I know that just joking it off only makes you feel worse, while changing the topic may only bring temporary relief. What’s even worse is that efforts to help with the problem, while useful, are quite bruising to the ego and result in lower self-worth. There isn’t a clean solution, but perhaps educating in how failure is not connected with what kind of person you are would be good in the long run. For the current time, just being a good friend will probably result in better feelings, as others can at least open up to you without fearing social or other kinds of rejection.
Perhaps tomorrow I’ll do something wacky, just for the experience of failure. Maybe eventually, we will be able to move past the closed doors and see the opened ones surrounding us.