I saw a sign in my gym the other day: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?”

I thought about this, and of course made a short list. I’d write the best short stories ever; I’d star in a play at a major theater; I’d paint wonderful paintings that hang in a high-end gallery.

I thought about this some more on my walk, and the idea that I could not fail intrigued me. First I thought about the failure in terms of ability. If I write a fabulous short story, what then constitutes my success? Selling it? Making money? Or is the accomplishment the success, whether it ever sees broad publication or not? And who decides? I have read some novels and short stories that I think are abysmal. But they are published, in the library or a book store, shiny cover and all. Some might say the author is successful. Friends who read my short stories think they are excellent, should be published, etc. So though unpublished, am I a success or failure?

My paintings, my acting have both been praised. Am I unsuccessful because I’m not in a high end gallery, paintings being snatched up by collectors who put them in storage spaces as investments? Must I be on stage at the Orpheum in order to be a successful actress?

Then I thought about the whole idea of simply knowing I could not fail. Take acting, for example. If I audition for a play, there is always a built in sense of anticipation and excitement, along with the tension of hope. But if I know the part will be mine, no matter what, then the audition would be a bit of wasted time, since the outcome would be a foregone conclusion.

Now, of course, the first few times I was assured success, it might be fun – even exhilarating. But after a while I think it would make a life a little lifeless. I mean, the whole idea of striving to achieve is lost if I know I’m not going to have to strive, I’m there. Always. And to me, striving is part of the excitement of living, of gaining knowledge, ability, breadth of performance.

The other aspect of this question is the word fail. If I am not cast in a play because the director wants a younger cast, or she wants someone who looks like the daughter who’s been cast, or she wants someone heavier, does that mean I’ve failed?

If I’m in a relationship for many years that is wonderful, but then the dynamics shift, and we separate, have we failed?

This whole issue is interesting because I find that much of what we attempt in life has a built in component of success or failure to the endeavor. Without the necessity of striving to reach beyond where we have already achieved, life might not be any fun. Isn’t life about reaching beyond where we are, and gaining confidence that we will succeed because “I am so good,” yet knowing there might be someone better. And if I keep striving, the someone might eventually be me!

My brother once told me that I should always play tennis with players who play better than I do. At first this seemed a bit foolish; I would never win. But is winning the only mark of success? If I only played with people I could beat, then I’d be assured of winning, but is that success, if I never really improve? Is being the best in a little pond success? Playing with the better players might mean sure failure at first, but I’d have to keep pushing myself past my original boundaries in order to succeed, to win once in a while. And isn’t the ultimate victory, the real success, in my improvement?

Maybe the possibility of failure is actually a spur to greatness. If we know that failure is a possibility, then we keep striving to improve, and we keep challenging ourselves to broaden our skills.  Then – without any outside force telling us, “You cannot fail,” we get to the point where we succeed because we have brought ourselves to that point. In this case, the promise of success lies within us; it is infused within us. And that inner force is where true success lies.

One added note: The idea of testing is so absurd, because the assumption is that if you get the wrong answer, then you are a failure.  Wrong answers give us information, as Thomas Edison and many other inventors and researchers have learned. We don’t educate our students about the value of the wrong answer, nor do we teach them how to regroup after failure. This is a vital component of being a healthy human being. We will fail at something in our lives. It’s what we do after that, how we conduct ourselves, that counts.

About Davina

I am a retired teacher, writer and artist. This web site was set up for several reasons. First is to give people a chance to see my art work, and decide if there is something they like enough to contact me. Second is to present my ideas on education and life in general - anything that gets my attention. Feel free to comment in an intelligent manner.
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4 Responses to FAILURE

  1. Nancy Davison says:

    Davina,, every time I see or hear the word “failure” I immediately think of the story about Thomas Edison. On the development of the light bulb, a reporter asked him “So, Mr. Edison, how does it feel to be successful after so many failures.”

    Edison thought a moment and replied, “I didn’t know they were failures, I thought I was finding out what didn’t work.”

    • Davina says:

      It seems failure has become a dirty word, to the degree that children are not allowed to fail any more. So they can’t cope when they don’t succeed. Everyone has to get a trophy, everyone has to have a “great progress” report, even if they did no work. I agree with Edison – failure is really progress in another sense – it tells you what path to avoid the next time. In teaching the value of wrong answers to my students, I used to give them this problem: You have to pick between red and green to get into the door. You pick red. You can’t get in. What do you know? Green will get you through the door. Wrong answers still give you information.

  2. nancy says:

    I love this concept. If there is not failure, or ‘not quite making it’, then why bother?
    where would the challenge be? What is the reward in achieving something that you already knew you would….

    • Davina says:

      I know! I don’t understand why we don’t allow kids to learn about the value of the wrong answer. Wrong answers give information. But we test, test, test and tell them that if they get too many wrong answers, they are inadequate. So much for having the patience to pursue until you get it right…

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