the triumph of failure

Failure isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Neither as bad or as good. I put in Conan O’Brian’s take on how to overcome failure a little while ago, but the theme keeps on reappearing. First, I saw this article in the Atlantic Monthly (well, recommended by a cousin on Facebook) called

How to Land Your Kid in Therapy

Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods. A therapist and mother reports.

Intriguing, right? It’s a pretty convincing read saying that the hovering of today’s parents is making kids unable to find their own way, whether in happiness or anything else. It’s probably most convincing because I need to reassure myself that my lack of hovering was the right way to go. But then they had their father, so basically it was good cop, bad cop. The article also reinforces what I said in reaction to the Amy Chua Tiger Mom thing that we need goals and we need to feel there’s always something ahead of us. (Even while we’re taking a break and taking it all in–that’s just part of the way.) Here’s a rabbit hole of one kind or another for a moment: Family Circus Yes, there are real disorders today and they’re not all aligned with parental overkill. Some of us are born with stuff; some of us develop it slowly or otherwise. But if we don’t teach kids how to handle failure, then we might as well give up everything.

So that’s when the next article comes in handy.

Here again, failure seems to play a positive role akin to its conceptual cousin, “transparency.” In other words, the more honest and candid we can be about what works and what doesn’t work, the sooner we’ll be able to fix what doesn’t and make it better.

Most of the time, I’m in complete agreement with this sensibility, but what concerns me is that in this counterintuitive embrace of failure we may be conflating different kinds of failure, and doing so at some risk. Perhaps all this is a necessary antidote to capitalism’s “success at any cost” mentality. But I have a creeping sense of anxiety that the rise in the rhetoric of failure dovetails in troubling ways with a shift toward esteem building in child raising and general education — in other words, trophies for the last place team, too. And not to sound like a hard-driving, unforgiving “tiger mother,” but I do wonder what this ubiquitous positive vibe surrounding failure really means for a nation in decline on almost every measure of productivity, achievement, and social equity. Coincidence?

Then he proceeds to list 6 different kinds of failures.

Abject failure

Structural failure

Glorious failure

Common failure

Version failure

Predicted failure

Failure as an essential part of a process that allows you to see what it is you really need to do more clearly because of the shortcomings. Example: the prototype — only by creating imperfect early versions of it can you learn what’s necessary to refine it.

With this extended vocabulary, we may now be able to recognize that there are valuable kinds of failure that are essential to innovation processes (version and predicted), while acknowledging that there are other types of failures that do little good. The old adage is correct: We do learn from failure. And there’s no question that out of failure — even abject failure — we emerge transformed in ways that may ultimately be beneficial. But that does not mean that all failures deserve a trophy.

Indeed.

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