Blog Post

Failing Together, Better Late Than Never

Perhaps it is fitting that I failed to see Cathy Davidson’s post about a talk she gave six months ago on failure and the fantastic conversation that followed.  But I’m here now, thanks in no small part to the beautiful new HASTAC design.  Demos, Kaysi, Mandy, and everyone else involved—it looks amazing.  Thanks you so much for your hard work!


But enough about success.  Let’s talk about failure. The topic of failure has been a reoccurring topic of conversation in the PhD Lab.  Fellow Lab participant Aaron Dinin taught a class on failure in the spring, I’m teaching one in the fall.  As I design my class this summer, Cathy’s talk and conversation afterwards guides my thinking in how to engage with the privilege attached to any conversation about failure.  In many ways, it seems like failure—at least in tech circles—is simply the American Dream 2.0.  Fail fast, fail big, and maybe you too could be the next Steve Jobs.  Perhaps that brand of failure works for one of the whitest and most male-dominated professions.  But what about those who cannot afford to take these kinds of risks? 


I believe everyone deserves a safety net to be able to take risks, make mistakes, learn from them, and move forward better and stronger.  That’s what’s at the heart of my commitment to studying and promoting a particular kind of failure—one that is productive and collaborative.


I owe this language to my colleague, Aaron.   At a recent meeting, we failed to nail down any deliverables.  We did, however, think together about why we were interested in exploring failure.  Aaron drew out the distinction between productive and unproductive failure.  This is a crucial point.  Is failure the end or the beginning?  Experiences of failure can shut us down or shut us out.  This can be due to internalized anxieties, external consequences, or both.  Failure can also be the spark that lights the fire for creative inspiration.   It can be the source material to move us away from ground that was never made to nurture our hearts or minds. 


“It’s about failing together, that’s what I care about,” Aaron said.   That, to me, was our deliverable—the idea that we can move failure from a stigmatizing and internalized label towards a space of productive and collaborative possibilities.  This requires creating safe spaces in which failure is something we can learn and grow from, together.  That starts with examining failure in our own professional and personal lives.


Full disclosure: I went to hippie preschool.  We played collaborative games.   The win/win is hardwired into my psyche.  So too is the crippling perfectionism of what has been described as an A+ personality.  I avoid failure like the plague.  Teaching a class on failure is probably partly therapeutic.  I’m okay with that.  Anxiety has prevented my own productivity as a scholar and a teacher.   I know I’m not alone in that respect.  Which is why I’m looking forward to failing together with my students (and whoever else wants to join in the conversation).  Because it’s never too late to go to the places that scare you and realize what was waiting there wasn’t so bad after all.   It’s never too late to identify the inequalities embedded within our social structures and slowly try to chip away at them (or make a full frontal assault).  And it’s always better to make these efforts together.



What a great blog!   And the crippling A+ perfectionism is very difficult to escape.  I like it that you are teaching a course to help get beyond that, as a kind of "therapy."  Read Mike Rifino's blog post about Vygotsky.  By teaching it, you are teaching yourself.  Perfect scaffolding.

Two responses:  (1) Why I like to remind of privilege and failure is that, as we see with #blacklivesmatter, there is no room for error for certain people in our society and in the world.  So "failure" is an existential condition not an allowance or a permission or a pass granted to the fortunate but the bottom line.  In a horrible because too existentially true piece recently in the New York Times Roxanne Gay describes what she does getting in a car these days, just to make sure she has the driver's license, the cell phone, the insurance and registration, everything in sight, where it is needed, so she can survive the drive, and at the end she says, numbly, that she doesn't even feel alive but that she's "not yet dead" (     I do not want to tell her she has the right to fail.  And (2) a recent study of entrepreneurs found that the most common quality that they had wasn't "spunk" or "grit" or "resilience" or any of those qualities the business books ascribe but affluent families willing to support them if they fail.   As you and Aaron say, a safety net.   

The reason we created HASTAC as an open community as in academe there is a lot of weight on failure--so by creating such a vibrant and supportive community, it means that, when you experiment, you have the equivalent of an "affluent family," to help you if you are floundering--there's always advice out here somewhere, from someone about a useful way of doing something, of trying something, and so forth.  (I just had an idea!  We should think about a HASTAC advice column, like the ethics column in the NY times each week.  That would be quite the feature.)     



I read that study about entrepreneurs being able to fail because they had the financial and social support to allow them to take risks.  There is definitely a celebration of failure going on right now that is not taking in to account the privilege it is steeped in.  And resilience fits in there in a really troubling way.  We can't talk about "bouncing back" without taking into account the fact that people are not "bouncing" from a level playing ground.  And "bouncing back" is just really trite anyways.  So, this is part of what I want to think through in the class.

I love Roxanne Gay's recent writing.  But I disagree with the idea that we shouldn't tell people they have the right to fail.  I think that is part of the point.  Everyone fails.  Everyone has this right.  The deep, structural, infuriating problem is that the consequences of failure are not the same for everyone.  So a failure that goes unnoticed for one (let's say not having a license plate on the front of your car, for example) can lead to death for another person.  The differential access to failure and the differential consequences of it is at the heart of the structural inequalities in this country.

And a HASTAC advice column is a great idea!