Finding Failure

by Sarah Norek

Lately, I’ve been digging into failure. It all began with wondering what it meant to be or not be transparent about failure, and then it kind of unspooled from there. Below is my messy process thinking, complete with way more questions than answers. And at the end, if you’re still here, I’ll share some ways you might explore failure too.

1.

As I write this, I’m sitting with my son on the couch, where I’ve been trying to form something coherent about failure for the last forty-five minutes. This alone feels a bit like a failure. When I started reflecting on the topic over a week ago, I could hardly rein it in at a half-hour. But now: all these brief starts and long stops as I try wading in again.

I just asked my son what failure meant to him and he replied, Giving up.

His answer pretty accurately reflects how we’ve raised him and his sister. We’ve been intentional about how we talk about failure, in that we don’t exactly. We talk most about trying, and practicing, and seeing the opportunity in things that are difficult or that don’t go how we’d like them to at first. If I translate his response in relationship to this, failure is the act of not trying.

2.

Facilitating academic success workshops, emailing students through the Transition Communication Campaign, and drafting content for the Learning Corner, I emphasize the opportunity in trying things out. I pitch the OSU years as a sandbox, where folks can practice with strategies, see what works and what doesn’t, and bring that knowledge into their post-graduation space.

And yet, as much as I may write about the opportunity within failure, and growth that can come from failure, I don’t like failure, and I don’t go into things hoping I’ll fail – but what if I did? When did I stop engaging with this idea of having a sandbox of my own, or of being a part of the greater sandbox of experimentation? I love experimenting. I love trying new things. But I also feel a disconnect between my love for innovation and permission to not have it all quite work. Because sometimes – lots of times – new ideas might fail.

3.

The potential for failure, and the feelings failure carries, can consume me. And I see connections between failure and perfectionism. As much as I may be working to undo my dedication to perfectionism, it runs deep; for me, the potential for perfection is never far from the hazard of failure. But what does bringing opportunity into failure do? Could it counter the perfectionism, and could that soften failure’s sting? Could failure be remade into something that feels more like an invitation to experiment and innovate?

Exploring Failure

I don’t think all failure is redeemable. I don’t think all growth from failures inoculates us against any judgement that may be doled. Sometimes, we really fail badly, and the impact expands beyond our individual edges to affect or engulf others.

At the same time, I think normalizing and validating failure is important. I also think it’s important to consider our privileges and identities that afford us to fail more or less easily than others, or to more or less easily share our failures.

I appreciate how the SI Leaders’ reflections in On Failing Forward help me see this gap in my reflection. I’m not insulated from the repercussions of failure, but how has my identity made certain failures safer/less safe for me than for others who identify differently? I know it has.

So now I have even more questions: If we see failure as an opportunity for growth, then is it the failure that we grow from, or is it the recovery – the way we choose to recover – that induces growth? What is it to fail publicly versus privately, or individually versus within a team? How does failure in one sphere of our life shape and inform what we do with failure in the others?

For me, the concept, practice of, and recovery from failure is like a big onion. There are so many layers. After peeling one back I might be shaking my head or crying or walking away to regroup and return or push on to the next layer.

I won’t give up failing. It will always be there. But I like to think that the way I – and we – engage with failure has the potential to become, or remain, or return to malleable.

Curious to explore failure? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Check out the videos Chris mentioned in his article about Failing Forward.
  2. Engage in a thought experiment: When’s the last time you talked with someone about something you failed at? What failure did you choose to share, and who did you share with? How long after the failure did you choose to share about it? What did you share about the failure? How did you feel – when the failure happened, or when you realized it was a failure, or when you spoke about your failure?
  3. Start a conversation with a colleague, friend, or loved one about failure – what does it mean to be transparent about failure? What is it to enter, move through, and exit failure – or do we? When is it failure and when is it learning? How do privilege and identity impact/shape our failure?
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