My son applied for a job. He participated in a comprehensive testing and interviewing process and waited for the response. “Successful applicants will hear by Friday,” the organizers told him.
He came home that Friday to join us for a family event. The day came and went with no word. I would say “crickets,” but we’re in Ottawa, Canada, so no crickets in this cold. Let’s say that Friday passed with no sound but the lone call of a blue jay in the hinterland. He didn’t get the job.
“Oh well,” I said to him when all four of us gathered together for dinner. “Failure has its own lessons.”
Stunned silence followed my words. My husband, my daughter and my son stared at me as if I had declared my son—personally and overall—a failure. (No, no, no.)
After a couple of beats, my son said, “I might have put it a different way . . .”
I tried again. “You gave it your best shot and it didn’t work out. You learned from the experience and you’ll be better prepared for the next opportunity,” I said.
Mollified, all three nodded their heads. That was better. I didn’t use the word.
“Fail,” like “dead,” has become a word we’re not supposed to say. People don’t fail anymore; things don’t work out, or weren’t meant to be, or circumstances weren’t right. People don’t die anymore; they pass away, cross over, or go to a better place.
In this time of participation ribbons, and sports played without scorekeeping, and “leaving” ceremonies instead of graduations, perhaps there’s some value in reclaiming failure. Instead of protecting people from ever having a hurt feeling, we teach them how to deal with the hurt, how to build from it and not hide from it.
Maybe we can celebrate each failure as a worthy attempt. “You stood in there, faced your fear, tried something and failed! Good for you!”
“Failure made me look forward to the next game. If I had a bad game, I couldn’t wait for the next day, when I could brush off the failure and try to do better.” —Gary Carter in Still a Kid at Heart: My Life in Baseball and Beyond
My son plays baseball, so overall I’m not worried about his ability to deal with failure. An exceptional baseball hitter fails two-thirds of the time at the plate, and pitchers fail over and over when their fastballs end up on the home run side of the outfield fence. Playing the sport he loves, my son has learned how to brush himself off and carry on with the game after one type of failure or another.
But he still doesn’t like the word.
Here’s J.K. Rowling on The Fringe Benefits of Failure.