Failure Studies


We’ve been reading quite a lot about failure lately, and clichés and nostrums aimed at getting teachers to embrace failure and to encourage students to do the same trip up and down my Twitter stream at the same rate similar exhortations to embrace “excellence” might have done twenty years ago, before a couple of stock market crashes (one just for dot-coms, one for everyone) and a brace of nasty, ceaseless wars. At least we’re trying to be realistic.

Failure is pretty wonderful, we’re told, and it is axiomatically the ancestor of all success. It’s certainly true that folks who don’t experience failure, either because they’re intentionally insulated from it by well-meaning but misguided responsible parties (parents and teachers and that sort) or because they are fortunate enough to get most things right most of the time, are in for a hard time of it when their ship inevitably grazes a rock or collides full-on with an iceberg. It is a truism that trial-and-error, the technique by which even the most intentional of us often wind up using to get from Point A to Point B, is very much about making and then correcting errors. It’s an iterative process; so, pretty much, is everything. Welcome to the world.

Once upon a time I knew and loved a man who had devoted his life, quite unintentionally at first but ultimately with full awareness of his predicament, to failure. I’ll not name him, but he was my father-in-law, a PhD neuropsychopharmacologist who had pursued his science after a stint as a medic in Patton’s army, where he liberated, if that is the word, several death camps; he had come to the conclusion that the world was a pretty crazy place and needed all the help, scientific and otherwise, it could get. We’ll call him Doc, which is how his neighbors, students, and colleagues referred to him.

By the 1950s Doc’s life’s purpose was clear: to track down the neurochemical roots of schizophrenia. In time he became a senior scientist at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, working next door to the team that created The Pill and changed society forever, although we can still work up a sweat fighting about who should be paying for a woman’s right to choose conception or not—an important question in a nation where not every woman can easily pay for this herself.

So each weekday and sometimes more often for thirty years or more, Doc left the country home he and his wife had built with their own raised-on-the-farm hands and went to his lab. These were exciting years in neuropsychopharmacology, what with the emergence of all kinds of new tranquilizers, refinements of electroconvulsive therapy, and even some rather enthusiastic experimentation with psychoactives like lysergic acid. Doc even wound up doing some rather hush-hush work involving LSD, our government, and experimental subjects of various sorts.

By the middle of the 1970s, when I first met him, Doc had presented at the most prestigious conferences around the world, successfully applied for grant after grant, collaborated with some pretty serious players, and built himself a summer house on Buzzards Bay in Massachusetts—a modest A-frame where he and his family could relax, swim, sail, and stomp around in the mud at low tide for quahogs. Life was pretty okay, in general.

But some things were beginning to come into focus in Doc’s field. It was beginning to look as though the particular theoretical route that he and his collaborators had taken into the mysteries of schizophrenia was, in fact, a dead end. The thing was, no one could be sure; more research was needed before the books could be closed on certain possible causes of this really, really awful disease.

So it was Doc’s responsibility, his fate I guess, to chase these unpromising threads all the way to their cold, dead ends. Not surprisingly, the grantors were a good deal less excited about this work than they had been when success had meant a cure, or at least a treatment. Now success meant failure, or maybe failure meant success, and the resources to do the work—and to sustain Doc’s frugal, Depression-kid-who-remembered-the-bad-times lifestyle—gradually petered out; who wants to fund someone to prove that something indeed does not work? It was not a happy time in Doc’s life, and so I never got to know him in his active, optimistic, Promethean prime, although his post-prime levels of energy and insight and know-how were intimidatingly high. He just never stopped being brilliant, and he never stopped being courageous enough to press onward with his work.

In time Doc retrained himself as a therapist and hit his “retirement” years with a new career and a chance to work one-on-one with people whom he’d once hoped to help wholesale. He died a few years back, the subject of awed tales told by his children, grandchildren, and acquaintances. I can still hear his voice, shouting over the chainsaw as we harvested the standing deadwood in his woodlot to heat his house.

But I think about our current love affair with failure, with its narrative of inevitable success after sufficient discomfort and iteration, and I am forcibly reminded that not everyone succeeds. In our society we’ve got plenty of evidence that failure often rewards even the most earnest and diligent effort, and Doc’s story reminds us that sometimes it’s as critical to be sure that we’re iterating all the way to the dumpster as it is to turn that sow’s ear into a silk purse, or golden app.

In other words, failure in the narrative of “a stop on the road to success” is a lovely concept, but sometimes failure is just failure, and sometimes it’s as important to end in failure as it is to succeed. But it’s not always so fun for those who must endure, and sometimes even engineer for themselves, such failures.

As educators we sometimes need to check our tendency toward giddiness when it comes to counterintuitive but self-evident narratives that seem all new and exciting. I’m all for trial-and-error, failure, prototyping-and-iteration, but we need to keep our delight in these things in context and perhaps set ourselves and our students to considering other dimensions of failure. Whether we’re talking science or social justice, there’s plenty to explore and plenty to learn, lessons as important as failure itself.


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