You'll Never Be Successful... Unless You Can Say You Failed.
January 3, 2020 —
This post was written back in 2011 and has since been edited slightly for better clarity and my own sanity.
While washing my dishes, I let my mind wander, and I came up with an idea that's been bugging me for quite some time.
I've always had trouble with motivation in regards to school. Over the years, I've subconsciously known why, but I think today I properly understood it. It's due to the idea of failure. I know this isn't a new topic.
I get that grades are important to measure performance, however inaccurate they may actually be. But the school system (from what I've experienced) is flawed in the idea that grades are a measure of aptitude, intelligence, or comprehension. Being a senior in a fairly prestigious university, most of what I see around me are students only looking to get decent grades in order to graduate. "I just want to pass," "it's my last semester: I'm ready to graduate," [insert cliché graduating senior comment about grades/classes/graduation]. And honestly, I feel the same way.
Looking over the past few years, I've realized how restrictive school has been on my creativity. Worrying about grades, applying to majors or sequences, taking multiple-choice and memorization tests... I've grown so exhausted to the point where I wonder if it was even worth it. Did I learn something? Of course I did. I learned a lot. Some I learned from the content in the courses I took, and a lot outside of that. College is a learning experience, no doubt.
In the end, it was worth it. I'm even more certain of the types of people I neither want to be, nor with whom I want to associate. I've learned what really matters in the end. And it's not the size of a paycheck (though I do recognize the importance of a stable income), and it sure as hell isn't a piece of paper that tells you the field of study in which you are sufficiently "prepared" to pursue a career. My eligibility to graduate and receive my diploma is based on:
Receiving D or above in each required course
The average of my courses within my major's college
The average of all the courses that I have taken in order to complete my degree plan
And while systematically this is acceptable, it's not rational. Very few classes throughout my academic career evaluated course performance based understanding of the information presented. However, looking back, I regret not taking my English courses more seriously. I think English courses are underrated. They are the few that teach students how to think rather than what to think or to memorize. I know that every course ideally teaches students to think, but it is more dependent on the teachers and curriculum, and I think more commonly English is a subject in which it's hard not to succeed in promoting cognitive growth.
"Mistakes aren't always regrets."
We've learned to shy away from failure. Failure is unacceptable. A taboo. By failure, I mean the unanticipated, undesirable result of an execution or situation by either our own standards or society's. For some reason, we're supposed to be perfect, or nearly. Why is that? Stephen Fry blames it on setting goals. Some blame it on the American Dream. The government. The man. Parents. Or we can even say that it's the ego of mankind.
Personally, I think it's because as the years have passed, technology has advanced, we've become more efficient in our affairs, and life itself has gotten faster. The "better" we get, the higher the standards, and thus, the smaller our room for error.
Failure is good. Failure is one of the most valuable experiences one can have. There are at least three ways in which I believe failure benefits us.
Failure is our teacher. We have so much to learn from failure. Where we went "wrong," which decisions may have resulted in this outcome. We learn about ourselves and how we've dealt with what has happened. We can find out how to improve in areas we may never have considered.
Failure sets an example for others. When outsiders witness failure, they may learn something about our technique as well. They may see how to "rectify" our "mistakes". They may not even see our situation as a failure at all but rather inspiration for a new way of thinking or acting.
Failure is humbling. We can become more open-minded because of it. Don't expect greatness right away. Don't expect it on the 100th attempt. Everyone has their own pace, and we each have to find our own. We can't be the smartest person in the room—we shouldn't be. There's always someone better. We're human, remember that. Accept it. And breathe.
But what does it really mean? I'm not saying that we should necessarily seek out failure. And we definitely shouldn't be content with it. But maybe there's something to be gained from our shortcomings. The point is to take a risk once in a while. Experience life, and don't be afraid to feel something.
As a designer—as an artist—I'm scared of a blank page. I think many are. We're afraid of the potential failure—taking something so pure and bastardizing it. A blank page is intimidating, and we only want to lay images and words so profound. Like those of the greats before us. It's dreaming of the potential we see in the paper. But the truth is, potential is worthless without attempts to reach it. We are so conditioned to only accept greatness that we shy away from doing what we might not be good at. If we never try our hand at something, how do we know for sure? For instance, just recently, I decided to start collages. Looking at my favorite collage artist Hollie Chastain, my work is nowhere near her caliber. It probably never will be, and I'm okay with that because I'm looking to learn from the experience. I'm not worried about being great. It's about learning. It's about learning who I am and what I'm capable of and appreciating that.
January 3, 2020—
Looking back, my perspective on this has changed very little. Though intellectually I understand each failure is a learning opportunity, I still struggle with this today. It's difficult to reprogram the way you think about something so fundamental as failure. You're taught at such a young age to avoid or even fear it. It's the demon hiding under your bed. It's disappointment—something you can never come back from.
Why? Since when is it such a problem to fall and get back up? How many children are able to walk on their first attempt? How many kids go through their childhood without scraping their knees and elbows when learning to ride a bike?
Why are adults teaching their children to steer clear of any and all failure? As adults, do we not make mistakes? Do we not fail after the age of 25? We pretend that we're above such things. At our age, we can't possibly afford to fail.
The truth is experience doesn't come from success. It comes from failure. And if we're telling kids to fear failing, we're jeopardizing their futures.