Let’s Put the “Lure” Back in Failure…

Daily Prompt The Spice of Success If “failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor” (Truman Capote), how spicy do you like your success stories?

Failure — the sound of one hand clapping

Success — the sound of two hands clapping.

Ah, this subject, the one to which my students historically respond, “Yeah, it depends what you mean by success,” as a way to weasel out of writing about it. Me too. I’m weaseling out of it, too, I think… We’ll see how successful my weaseling is (ultimately).

This prompt lends itself to many popular clichés around the lie, “There’s no such thing as failure, as long as you do your best.” The book I used to teach from (and which should be required reading for everyone everywhere) is a critical thinking text titled Beyond Feelings by V. R. Ruggiero. Ruggiero likes facts and so do I. One fact that Ruggiero writes about is the fact that we do fail. We attempt and we fail.

My students — mostly — came from the “everyone wins” culture and one of them a couple of years ago said, yeah, she got a ribbon even though she lost a race. “It was so dumb. I knew I lost. I mean when everyone is WAITING for you to cross the finish line you KNOW you didn’t win, right?  Even when you’re only six.” The ribbon she got, by the way, was brown. It was the only brown ribbon; it was a ribbon awarded to the loser. It was a ribbon that said, “You failed, and here’s a ribbon to acknowledge your failure.” (Cold comfort.)

Even that attempt to spin failure into success, uh, failed…

Another cool cliché (which might have a germ of truth in it) “The only real failure is not trying.” I am not sure that’s logically sound. If you do not TRY you cannot FAIL.

So, how spicy do I like my successes? I don’t even care that much about succeeding anymore. Why? Well, here’s the deal. Someone looking at me might see success that I do not see. That’s another element to this — success is often in the eye of the beholder. Here is an example…

Anyone who reads my blog often knows my brother was a hardcore alcoholic who tried, for a period of time, to get his life together. During the early 90s, when my life was falling apart, my marriage had broken, I was having a hard time earning enough money to make it from one end of the month to the other, I spoke with my brother on the phone. It was a real heart-to-heart and at one point I said, “I just don’t see the point. All I do is patch things up and hold them together.”

“Wow,” he said, “you can do that? You can patch things up and hold them together?”

From his point of view, I was doing well. I heard two hands clapping.

And, after that conversation, I knew I had — up till then — completely missed the point of everything. Success was NOT getting the job, or getting the guy, or getting published, or getting anything I might put my eyes on and pursue with the single minded purpose of a kid running a race. It was pretty simple. I would patch things up and hold them together and be happy that I have that ability — or have had, so far. And the point of the brown ribbon? Maybe deep down inside someone wanted to help the kid learn that the important part of any enterprise is simply showing up. Nothing happens if you don’t.


9 thoughts on “Let’s Put the “Lure” Back in Failure…

  1. Do I detect a bit of ambivalence? If so, I share it with you. I’ve had few clear victories, but plenty of resounding defeats. Failure is obvious. Success can be subtle. Survival seems to be the ultimate prize for all of us.

    • When I left the college at which I was teaching (part time gig to augment my university gig — both failures since I never got tenure) my boss said, “I’m going to be very sorry to see you go and so will our students.” I thought, “Really? In 2007 you could’ve hired me for keeps.” I don’t know in that situation if there’s success or failure; but I’d rather be here than there so even though I failed to get the job, I did get to teach and I had some great classes and now I’m here. So…it’s really stamina, survival and outlook, I think. I would like (I think) to have gotten what I wanted it but maybe it would’ve been that other Capote quote, “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered ones.”

  2. The “loser” still reached the finish line, so, yes, that is something. She held it together too.

    The irony here is that, at the beginning of the post, I thought that awarding everyone a prize was stupid, and from what my younger friends tell me about their children’s experiences, it is. But after reading the entire post, now I can actually see the potential, if done right. I don’t expect that it ever will be done right, except for the exceptional teacher or the exceptional parent, but it can have merit.

    The big problem – the problem that no one wants to admit – is that the majority of people are middle of the road. There ARE two percenters because of the ninety-eight percent who make them possible. Exceptional people are by the very definition an exception; telling everyone that they are an exception is simply ludicrous. Does everyone have unique gifts that, if practiced and honed can turn them into exceptional people? I would say, yes, most people COULD do that. The other part of the equation is that most people WON’T. They are content to watch reruns of bad TV while mindlessly consuming two thousand calories before bed each and every night and wondering why they can’t get ahead. If that’s what you want, go for it. If you want to be exceptional at anything, then go for that instead. Even if you haven’t taken a single class, lesson or whatever it is, start now and don’t let anyone dissuade you or stand in your way. And if you are content to watch reruns every night of your life, go buy yourself a ribbon, if you feel like it.

    • Luck has a lot more to do with what we regard as “success” than most people (even you! 😉 ) want to acknowledge. I think ultimately we do the thing for its own sake. There was nothing wrong with demonstrating to that kid that she’d lost the race. It’s ironic that they did not know that is what they had done. They hoped for something else. They had the illusion that a kid wanted a ribbon. Not so. The kid knew the difference between winning and losing and that a ribbon doesn’t make a person a winner; it’s crossing the finish line first that does that.

  3. When I first heard about the policy of awarding everyone a prize for EVERYTHING, I was flabbergasted. It got worse when the friend who told me about it described how long and hard his daughter had worked on a science project only to receive the exact same prize as everyone else, including one particularly abhorrent “project” that was a slip-shod bit of construction paper, glue and a couple of cotton balls glued to the paper that must have taken a whole fifteen minutes to put together.

    Not everyone is an athlete but rewarding children (or adults as the same thing can be said about the workplace) exactly the same for what is clearly a lackluster performance is setting them up for failure in the real world. Not to say that life is fair or that clearly undeserving people do get ahead for reasons that remain unclear. By and large, the people who do their jobs will succeed. The people who think that they deserve a great job and an equally great paycheck but who refuse to work don’t usually last long.

    And as for luck, I do believe that it exists but after all of the studies and books I have read about “talent,” I believe that simply working hard at the right things (which is the important part) will take you much further than luck. Luck takes the onus off of the performer and assigns our fate to an external set of circumstances, thus relieving us of our obligations. As much as I enjoy a good story, mythical or not, I am not Greek and I prefer to continue to believe that I have a greater chance of defining myself than destiny or fate does. Luck does exist but it can’t define you; that’s what gamblers want to think.

    • Believe what you want. I disagree. We don’t have power over our destiny. Did you choose to be born female? Did you choose your parents? Those things are “luck” (fortune) and are actually pretty random, but have a huge effect on our destiny REGARDLESS of what we make of it. Are you beautiful according to the current taste in female beauty? Do you have a high, average or low IQ? Did you go to a good high school or a bad one? Did your parents raise you with patience, care and support or did they have other things going on? Are you an only child or one of many? Are you first, middle or youngest? Did you grow up in a part of the country where there were lots of people or the population was sparse? Did you have the chance to travel as you were growing up? What year were you born? These things are “luck.” Random. This does NOT make us “victims” (the other side of our twisted perspective on success). It makes us just like all the other people throughout human history who looked realistically at what they had and who they were and WHERE they were and did the best they could. We owe them everything we are and have, but we don’t even know their names. The ONE thing a person can do to affect his/her destiny is cultivate an attitude that makes life worthwhile.

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