Saturday, September 24, 2011

"failure is not acceptable"

The older I get, the more I dislike the phrase, "failure is not an option." That's the kind of gung-ho nonsense-encouragement offered by second-rate military commanders, over-zealous and under-trained  business executives, and others enthusiasts attempting to achieve some goal. The trouble with the line is that the more you assert it, the more the possibility gains force. What's the matter with the truth? Failure is an option, whatever the aspirations of the one making an effort.

On the other hand, having acknowledged the truth, determination can be brought to bear and, in point of fact, even when failure is an option, still there is no failure in the effort.

After her initial 29-hour effort, sixty-two-year-old Diana Nyad gave up her attempt to swim 103 miles from Cuba to the United States. An asthma attack did her in. Yesterday, she began a repeat performance.

Is there any denying that she failed the first time? Is there any denying she might fail again? Failure is part of any mix, from swimming 103 miles to attaining enlightenment. But just as failure is part of the mix, so is determination. Will that determination be rewarded with success? Will it be crowned with failure? No one can know the future, but they can make the effort and in that effort, be rewarded. Lying about it diminishes the effort. Lying does not elevate it. Lying weighs down the scene with something extra, a distraction. Determination is a good thing, win, lose or draw.

The Fairfax County (Virginia) elementary schools have given up using A's, B's and F's as a means of marking their students. Now there will be longer, more nuanced, more meandering assessments that will reflect ... oh, you know, all the nooks and crannies of personal ability. But does saying more really say more? It puts teachers in a position of having to come up with some palatable way of saying Little Johnnie or Little Suzy screwed the pooch or exceeded all expectations.  Teachers have enough to do without this touchy-feely bullshitting.

When my kids were in grade school and the school would offer some kind of parent-teacher one-on-ones, I always tried to save the teachers from searching out all the polite ways of saying whatever it was they had to say. I pitied them trying to balance the parental prejudice with the plain facts. So I would tell the teacher I was sitting with that I was grateful for their effort with my child, but I wasn't there to hear accolades. I wanted to know where my child was weak or uncertain -- where the 'F'-word would have been used if these feel-good meetings hadn't been mandated. Usually, the teachers seemed relieved to be talking turkey and they could point out areas of weakness or failure. What better basis for determination, for a nourishing improvement?

If you can't swim 103 miles, let the twits talk about "failure." Now is the time to don the determination and go into the water again. Setting aside the common-enough habit of complaining and doubting, just suit up and, as the Japanese say, "fall down seven times, get up eight." Determination is acceptable; "failure" and "success" alike are unacceptable.

Or anyway, not terribly useful.

1 comment:

  1. Fall down x times, get up x+1 times; failure is always an option, plan #249 is percolating even now.