On Being A Failure

I was reminded yesterday of a friend who, a few years ago, who didn’t pass her grades. She was distraught.

“I’m a failure!” she cried. I’ve always had an adversity to calling someone a failure. It’s so absolute. Just as when some annoys you, you shouldn’t say, “you’re annoying,” you might say, “you’re annoying me right now”. The first is absolute, The second is temporary. You don’t get annoyed by their very presence (well, I hope no-one has that effect on you). The annoyance comes and goes.

“You’re not a failure, you’ve just failed this time around,” I replied. I was told that I was an optimist (dubious). I didn’t say anything back, but I wish that I had replied that, rather, I was just a rationalist.

We are born without any knowledge bestowed to us – other than the unconscious neural patterns and cognitive biases that allow us to survive as a baby (breathing, shitting, forming attachments with our mothers): which could arguably be said to processes rather than knowledge. As we get older, we accumulate more and more knowledge. After a time, we start testing our knowledge. Sometimes we pass, sometimes we fail. But should we blame ourselves for the knowledge we haven’t yet come across yet and acquired?

Yes, sometimes all of the knowledge is laid out in front of us, and the reason for why we fail is simply that the rate of knowledge acquisition wasn’t good enough. But even then, the skills of acquiring knowledge need to be taught. We need to learn how to learn. And some of us may learn in different preferential ways. Can we be blamed for not coming across a method that suits our style of learning?

I believe that all we can do is to try. Focus our attention at different levels: work at learning how to learn, then on learning. This is a balancing act; there’s no point planning our revision strategies if, by the time we’ve finished planning, we’ve given ourselves no time left to actually revise. Yet still, all we can do is try. When we fail, we highlight our absence of knowledge in certain areas. Failure is a useful learning experience that will help us succeed in the future. With each failure, our chances of being a winner in the future increase, as long as we learn from the failure.

Ultimately, if you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t win. The only time we are ever an absolute failure is when we give up. Because every individual instance of when we fail is an opportunity to glean one more hint into how to succeed next time.

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