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I have failed many times
January 9, 2014 2:12 PM   Subscribe

Is accepting failure essential to empathy? Reading this made me think of how we are very fortunate to experience failure and how it's essential to human progress. Interested in reading about the greatest failures that lead to your success in another area of your life.
posted by happysocks (31 comments total) 34 users marked this as a favorite

 
It is failure if you give up; otherwise it is feedback...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 2:22 PM on January 9 [6 favorites]


I think if you fail a lot, then you are either not paying attention when you set your goal, or you are not good with calculating the odds. If you have failed to view the social terrain and set realistic goals then failure is the result of being obtuse. Try some little successes. Get used to them, then make it work again and again, until the big things fall into place.

Wow! What great advice, I think I will try it myself.
posted by Oyéah at 2:32 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Anybody in industrial design can tell you that the number of prototypes that are developed before a non-vaporware version of something is produced as a 1.0 version is often staggering. The path Henry Dreyfuss took to create the first good Bell telephone handset (the 302), and it's successor the Model 500 is really something.

The incandescent lightbulb is another storied development process that saw thousands (some argue tens of thousands) of failures before it became a product that actually worked.

And of course most of us have seen the vintage film clips of all of the airplane versions people tried and sometimes died trying to make work.

And now in a world of "real time" ubiquity... it feels like people give up too quickly because they can't beat a level on Angry Birds.

I work in a design agency and I love being around first round work... it's raw and weird and a lot of it is terrible, but out of the rubble some really beautiful stuff emerges.

Also, as a side note... sometimes a failure actually makes it to market while the real winner is still sitting on a shelf or in a portfolio somewhere.
posted by bobdow at 2:44 PM on January 9 [6 favorites]


If you want to hear someone rant for hours, ask a programmer about libraries / languages / APIs that are failures but haven't been replaced yet.
posted by idiopath at 2:53 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


The older I get the less afraid I am, in general, of failure.
posted by edgeways at 2:53 PM on January 9 [7 favorites]


The older I get the more I realize I am, in general, a failure.
posted by perhapses at 3:00 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]


The older I get the more I realize I am, in general, a failure.

This is the source of edgeway's point: if you've already failed, what's there to fear?
posted by Sangermaine at 3:03 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


if you've already failed, what's there to fear?

Calling more attention to it?
posted by davejay at 3:04 PM on January 9


Newt Gingrich.

Whenever I get to feeling like I have fucked something up beyond all recognition and there is no coming back from it ever, I just remember that pasty two-faced philandering fuck and the millions he gets every election cycle to never actually get elected to anything.

If he can fail upwards, well, by jove, so can I.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 3:05 PM on January 9 [11 favorites]


I was fascinated (borderline worshipped) Richard Rorty when I was in college. For those of you who don't know, he was a post-modernist pragmatist professor who, aside from more or less ending philosophy (warning: controversial statement), went from chairing the top philosophy program in the country at Princeton to leaving philosophy altogether to take a job at Virginia teaching Comp Lit.

I talked to a professor of mine about why he did that, I mean you never hear that happening, and I remember him saying something to the effect of, "I think he was happy to leave philosophy, but he regrets the rigorousness of thought in the field that he left behind."

Which is to say something like, apparently all you need to do to write about death in the New York Times is slap a couple of ideas and quotes together and talk about a really good movie. The condescension in that article is miserable. Still, philosophy in the United States is a tragedy. Great minds at schools teaching this stuff. Incredible books and papers to read from. And totally irrelevant on its best day.

So we fumble along making new weapons and computer screens and printers that make things, and we don't really stop and ask if this is a good thing. A modern philosopher would not talk about success or failure without first describing what those things are, and quite frankly, it goes without saying that this conversation has been going on for hundreds of years. This idea that success and failure are binary is arguably a legacy of Western thought, supported by computing, but will barely get you past Philosophy 101. I apologize for bringing this up, it's just that the author does a huge disservice to some major intellectuals that have thought long and hard on this topic and that many of us struggle to even understand. Once again, a testament to the irrelevance of deep thought.
posted by phaedon at 3:06 PM on January 9 [13 favorites]


Failure is not an option. Failure is a derivative.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 3:14 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


If we were always successful, how would we understand those who fail? How would we accept our own failures? Failure is essential to empathy, and empathy is key to a healthy social life.

I was just thinking, it's nice to lionize failure until you get fired and find yourself in a never-ending unemployment vortex. Maybe this should be targeted to managers who decline to hire unemployed people.
posted by bleep at 3:25 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]


You have to succeed too, sometimes, otherwise failure is just what happens when you do stuff.
posted by Grangousier at 3:31 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Is accepting failure essential to empathy?

No.
Failure is a process.
Empathy is an emotion.
posted by jim in austin at 3:43 PM on January 9


Options are derivatives. You fail finance.
posted by jpe at 3:53 PM on January 9


This old Nike commercial is a nice keynote to this thread.
posted by zardoz at 4:01 PM on January 9


I always feel that when people say "failure is great," what they're actually saying is "being in a position to fail safely is great." This is indeed a great thing, but it's the sort of thing that right now is a privilege for most people, not a right. You can't try new things and brush off failure when you're barely able to provide for your family, or barely able to put yourself through college, or any of a thousand other ways people are failing in society with little in the way of recourse.

We should all be thinking not just of ways to fail ourselves in ways that eventually enrich us, but also of ways to give others the ability to fail without losing their livelihoods.
posted by chrominance at 4:03 PM on January 9 [14 favorites]


Options are a subset of derivatives. Failure is also a subset of derivatives. A ∩ B is indeterminate.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 4:04 PM on January 9


I always feel that when people say "failure is great," what they're actually saying is "being in a position to fail safely is great." This is indeed a great thing, but it's the sort of thing that right now is a privilege for most people, not a right.

Generally, yeah, but there are a great many ways to fail that aren't tied to economics. Failure in human relationships can be humbling and instructive. Failure there isn't great, but it can be valuable in the long run. ("Oh, wait, maybe I should stop being a giant dickhead...")
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 4:22 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


It is failure if you give up; otherwise it is feedback...
posted by Alexandra Kitty


In basic research, a negative result is still a result.
posted by StickyCarpet at 4:38 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


Or I can try to draw a perfect circle. Low stakes (not counting ego), unless I am so poor as to not afford another piece of paper.
posted by idiopath at 4:40 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


This brings to mind Brené Brown's work with blame vs shame. Somehow. Hard to describe, really. Except insofar as how one relates to others, and how others perceive themselves being related to.
posted by hippybear at 4:56 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]



I'm in the midst of overcoming a big failure. Without getting into sordid detail, a dream of how I wanted to live, plus a relationship that went along with it went completely into the toilet. I'm pretty much losing the work of the last 6 years including the financial part of it. Coming out of it I'll be in the negative financially which really sucks. Thankfully I have family that is cushioning the fall. If not I don't know where I'd be. i

I'm in my early 40's and am having to start over again with an entirely new life plan. I'm not sure what a measure of success overcoming this failure. Probably back to being entirely independent again. I already feel success though. I had to sit down, take stock of the entirety of my life so far and come up with the way forward. It was and is really tough. Just over three months I decided what I was going to pursue and what I could do within the limits of what I have to work with now.

The big step was approaching the big boss of the place that I had managed to get a minimum wage retail job with and being pretty blunt and honest about what was happening and what I wanted to pursue. I ended up volunteering to do the type of work I was after. At least I would get some experience to put on my resume and best case I'd end up working my way into getting paid for it. Some people said I was crazy to do this, that I'd end up being used etc etc but so far it's working and I started getting paid for it this week. It's not much but it's a start and for me the success is deciding "I want to be an X" and finding a creative way to do it with options that are available to me.

It's still going to be a long haul to work my way out of my situation but I can see light at the end now.
posted by Jalliah at 5:12 PM on January 9 [6 favorites]


"Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." -Winston Churchill

(there are various permutations of this quote; I don't know the original)
posted by lucerita at 5:16 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


So we fumble along making new weapons and computer screens and printers that make things, and we don't really stop and ask if this is a good thing. A modern philosopher would not talk about success or failure without first describing what those things are, and quite frankly, it goes without saying that this conversation has been going on for hundreds of years. This idea that success and failure are binary is arguably a legacy of Western thought, supported by computing, but will barely get you past Philosophy 101. I apologize for bringing this up, it's just that the author does a huge disservice to some major intellectuals that have thought long and hard on this topic and that many of us struggle to even understand. Once again, a testament to the irrelevance of deep thought.

Thank you so much for saying this. Failure/success is kind of a false dichotomy, it's just that modern life makes so many oblivious to this.
However, I would add that this is not due to computing, and it is incorrect to blame it on that. Because the works of Gödel and other philosophers and scientists, which today are the basis for computing as we understand it today—were concerned essentially with meaning and truth. Through their analysis of formal models, languages, and theories, they tried to grapple with questions of definability, consistency, and the very nature of numbers, none of the results obvious or intuitive. In my experience, familiarity with these issues—in a way, they were about the limits of logic—can improve one's awareness and sensitivity of the constructedness and ambiguity of words. Computing is everywhere, but most of us can only afford to gain a superficial understanding of it, so it is not computing per se but rather the lack of depth that results in rigid, binary worldviews. Whereas the very core of computer science is a questioning of just that.
posted by polymodus at 5:20 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


I failed to live up to my potential according to every single teacher I ever had, from kindergarten through high school, yet graduated near the top of my class with all kinds of silly letters and honors.

I dropped out of college and landed in an amazing job as a result, quickly paying off all my debts.

I eventually quit the amazing job to live closer to my girlfriend, and have been happily married now for many years.

I built a career out of that job and others, but eventually quit the whole thing to be a stay at home father, and I treasure every second I get to spend chasing my kid around the living room.

I went back to college recently, and got an art degree, working toward goals I've always felt passionately about.

I can't tell you how many people I've known, or am related to, who openly or quietly consider all of these choices to be colossal "failures." I certainly have no complaints though.
posted by trackofalljades at 5:29 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]


School trains us to get frustrated when we fail.

Failure is a very good thing. It's one of the best—maybe the best—learning devices. Yet rather than capitalize on it, most schools work hard to turn failure into something distasteful. And by the time people graduate, having spent most of their formative years in an institution where failure is a sin, they have a huge aversion to failing.

In most schools, the major structural element is ranking. We're wired to take ranking seriously. As soon as ranking exists, we care about it. A, B, C, D, F. Pass/Fail. And in the worst-case-scenario, you fail and are "kept back a grade," which affects you socially.

I have many memories of teachers compounding the problem. The didn't say, "How interesting: you got an F. Let's examine the situation and see how that happened..." Instead, Fs came with stern lectures. When we got Fs, teachers (and parents) were very disappointed in us.

(And I've never heard a teacher say, "Oh dear. You've gotten four As in a row. I must not be challenging you enough. Let's see if we can push you to failure so that you can overcome it. Personal trainers understand how vital that is. They wouldn't let you keep lifting weights that didn't strain your muscles. Many schoolteachers don't get it or work in environments that don't allow it.)

They didn't tell us that failure was a natural part of the learning process. They told us we had let them and ourselves down. We were basically told, over and over, for years, that if we got Fs, it was because we were lazy or stupid. Laziness is a moral failing; stupidity is an innate deficit. Failure—school tells us—means we're moral and physical cripples.

People (understandably) hate this so much, that as soon as they can, they put themselves in a position where they never have to fail again. (Or where the chances of failing are as small as possible.) They find jobs that aren't all that challenging after an initial learning curve. The goal, conscious or not, is to coast for the rest of one's life.

Which gives adults very little day-to-day experience with failure. Most people I know failed at certain subjects in school (maybe not by getting Fs, but by struggling with those subjects for years), and now have simply decided "I'm not a ______ person" or "I just don't get _______", e.g. "I'm not a Math person" or "I just don't get Shakespeare." That absolves them from trying. Which keeps them from failing. Which keeps them from learning.

This is not the way we start out. If infants decided, after many hundreds of failures, "I'm just not a walking person" or "I just don't get talking," we'd all be screwed. Luckily, those skills are acquired before school gets its clutches on us.
posted by grumblebee at 5:42 PM on January 9 [105 favorites]


I think of one type of failure somewhere in line with Nassim Taleb's take on Fragility. Failure helps us identify our strengths and our weaknesses and prepare for and deal with things that will eventually go wrong. We learn how to bolster our own pre-emtive defenses. Failure makes us anti-fragile.

From the perspective of those that never fail, they may believe they are endowed with excellence and a better sense of their business. They may very well be, but they may also just be lucky - and in that case they may eventually be surprised when they eventually encounter adversity.

There is another type of failure - catastrophic failure. And that is the kind of failure that no one can easily recover from - both those that never fail and those that occasionally fail within a given set of parameters. The difference between reaching catastrophic failure is that for those that have failed in the past have likely developed a coping strategy generally for rebuilding and restarting. If you've never seen failure, and you've never considered its possibility, and you've never had to recover from it... you may suddenly be getting a lesson in empathy.
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:37 PM on January 9 [4 favorites]


I think this is an especially important message to keep putting out there especially when so many people I know are in the "It's okay not to try if you can think up something really snarky to say to everyone else who is trying" camp, as if it's somehow more virtuous to have the most piquant putdown than to be the metaphorical one in the ring.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:51 PM on January 9 [3 favorites]


“It has always seemed strange to me...The things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling, are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism and self-interest, are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first they love the produce of the second.” -- John Steinbeck

Also, my favorite, from "Marty":

"All my brothers and brothers-in-laws tell me what a good-hearted guy I am. You don't get to be good-hearted by accident. You get kicked around long enough, you become a professor of pain."
posted by steinsaltz at 8:01 PM on January 9 [6 favorites]


Certainly the promise of continual human progress and improvement is alluring. But there is a danger there, too — that in this more perfect future, failure will become obsolete.

Not too concerned about this.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:04 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


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