Fail

I was talking with J. and E. earlier this year about the “pal of mine” endearment. I’m worried that it’s mean, I said. I don’t like to be mean, but that’s how it turned out.

How is it mean? asked J.

“Fail, pal of mine”? I said. Isn’t it mean to tell someone to fail?

I don’t think so, said J. I wouldn’t think that was a bad thing to tell a friend. Failure isn’t always bad.

I could see his point. The gleeful aspect of the lines just preceding that last line (“fie, foe”), and also the frame of mind I was in when I wrote, it had pushed it that way for me. (Again that maker’s narrative, which must be relinquished when the poem is done. All right, I relinquish it.)

About a year ago, I had a change of thinking in my excellent modern-dance class, taught by the excellent S. I had had this problem for a while: if things got past a certain threshold of difficulty and I was having trouble getting it, my mind would spiral into something like despair. It took a real mental effort to flip back up into the present moment, to move, to try. I had gotten better at this, and it happened less often.

One day in class, I had had such a moment. I wasn’t showing it, of course. I was working hard and concentrating; only the occasional frustrated shake of my head after trying a phrase betrayed my distress. I pulled out of it with difficulty, tried to enjoy the end of class and, as S. often says toward the end, to just dance, do it like you’re dancing and don’t worry about how it looks. As we were ending for the day, she said to the class, “You’ve worked really hard.” And in my mind a shift occurred. The hard work is the point, I realized. Failure is the point—when it’s done with an awareness, when you’re noticing what is happening, that information can help you get where you want to go. Closing my eyes and throwing myself at the movement, too afraid to watch and just hoping things will go right, I miss that information.

This may sound obvious. And I had read studies on attitudes toward learning, about which more below. But I had not felt this difference in my body and mind until then. The realization transformed the hard work I had been doing from a sometimes-terrifying effort to a source of pleasure.

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Carol S. Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, has studied the ways we frame success. Her work, a lot of it focused on young women and mathematics, suggests that when we hear that our success is a result of inherent goodness, or talent, we are more likely to give up when we mess up. Makes sense—if you do good because you are good, and then later you do badly, it must be because you are bad. But if we learn and feel that success is the result of hard work and that skills can be improved with practice, we’re more likely to persevere when things get harder.

If you, like me, were sent to gifted-and-talented class in school, you may have ended up with the short end of this stick. When I first read about Dweck’s studies, I felt really hopeful—they may change education practices, and they have definitely changed my thinking about my own efforts.

Nonetheless, it took me until that dance class to really know it. (It also took a lot of prior hard work, and the good space that S. and my fellow students and I created in the class, to make room for that awareness, and maybe also it took reading a lot of studies about learning, so the ideas were there in my mind, waiting to take hold.)

People say “good job” a lot. Sometimes, if they are in the know, they say, “You’re working hard.” But people rarely instruct you directly to fail, as the poem does. They say, “do x,” knowing the effort might not work out. But not “fail.” I have said it. And now, after the fact, I hear the glee in it not as a cackling triumph over a frenemy but as a playful acknowledgment: of how the little chaos that a failure makes, if it’s paid attention to, can help one get more clarity, more precision, more freedom.

Fail, pal of mine.

“Endearment (pal of mine)” (pdf)

Dweck, Carol S., “Is Math a Gift? Beliefs That Put Females at Risk” [pdf]. 2006. In S. J. Ceci & W. Williams (eds.), Why Aren’t More Women in Science? Top Researchers Debate the Evidence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Associaiton.

A Chronicle of Higher Education article exploring Dweck’s theories, including some critique of them

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