Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Celebrating failure


WASHINGTON—By the time Steve Jobs' Wikipedia page had been adjusted to past tense, eulogists had added a footnote to his biography of success. Failure.

Jobs, though wildly successful, also failed often and badly. Therein, we note posthumously, lies perhaps the larger lesson of his life: Sometimes you have to fail to succeed.

The truth is, you usually have to fail to succeed. No one emerges at the top. Even those born lucky eventually get a turn on the wheel of misfortune. Anyone with a résumé of accomplishments also has a résumé of failures, humiliations and setbacks. Jobs was fired by the company he co-founded. Yet it was during this period of exile that he picked up a little computer graphics company later called Pixar Animation Studios, the sale of which made him a billionaire.

This is to say, to fail is human. To resurrect oneself is an act of courage.

Jobs himself recognized his failures in a now-famous 2005 commencement speech at Stanford University. He recalled sleeping on the floors of friends' dorm rooms and walking seven miles to a Hare Krishna temple for his one good meal of the week. One needn't make an appointment with the Genius Bar to glean the moral of this story.

Fear of failure isn't only an adult concern. From an early age, we are plagued with anxiety about performance. This seems a natural-enough evolutionary development. The strong and savvy survive (and get the girl). The less accomplished eat scraps and enjoy the company of human leftovers. "Losers," we call them. So habitual is our attention to failure that we even have a word—or at least the Germans do—for enjoying others': Schadenfreude.

What possibly could make us take pleasure in another's failure? Simple. We love the company.


A history of human failure would make for a long and interesting read, yet we prefer books about success. We thrill at the end zone, applaud the extra point, admire the perfect 10. In literature, what is redemption but recovery from human failing? We love no one more than the man or woman who says I made a mistake, I'm sorry, please forgive me. Forgive? We want to hoist the penitent on our shoulders.

An entire lexicon of cliches has evolved around the idea of failure and recovery. It's not the thing attained that matters; it's the journey that gives us life. The act of creation—the struggle—far exceeds the pleasure of the thing created. Unless, of course, it's an Apple iPhone 4S. BlackBerry? Not so much.

Recent acknowledgment of the power of failure inspired by Jobs' too-soon demise provides a welcome spiritual uplift for stressed-out adults. But we're missing an even more important morality tale that has profound consequences for our nation's future. Our obsession with success and our fear of failure has trickled down to ever-younger humans, our children, at great cost not only to their psychological well-being but also, ultimately, to our ability to compete in the global marketplace.

We're so afraid our kids won't measure up that we drive them crazy with overbooked schedules and expectations, and then create a sense of entitlement by insisting on assigning blame elsewhere when their performance is lackluster. Sideline parents, first cousins to backseat drivers, who challenge coaches, teachers and umpires on behalf of their children are a relatively new development that can't be considered positive. When I wrote recently about the failure (there's that word) of colleges to teach core curricula that engender critical thinking skills, dozens of professors wrote to complain of students who aren't willing to work hard (or show up) yet still expect good grades. Even in college, they said, parents pester professors for better marks for their little darlings.

In another famous commencement address, J.K. Rowling's to Harvard in 2008, the "Harry Potter" author eulogized her own valuable failures. "Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations," she said. "Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way."

If we agree that wisdom, confidence and a better Apple are gifts of failure, then why are we so afraid to allow our children to experience it? In a culture where failure is not well-enough understood as necessary to growth—and accomplishment is diminished by a code of equal outcomes that enshrines entitlement—then no one gets wiser or better. And a nation populated by such people may not survive.

Kathleen Parker's email address is (c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group.

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