My whopping failures (or noble experiments?)
Life advice to my students
America worships success. In American culture, one of the worst things that can happen to anyone is to fail.
Fear of failure can be paralyzing. The experience of failure can be traumatizing. A refusal to acknowledge failure can turn someone into, well, Donald Trump.
I know some people who carry around their failures like scarlet letters — big shameful blotches that continue to haunt them for years.
Let me suggest another way of looking at failures.
I’ve been failing on and off for over 60 years, counting my first summer job when I got fired for failing to clean up the poop deposited by my boss’s German Shepherd on the roof deck outside his office on the 24th floor of a New York office building.
My first impulse was to defend myself. I didn’t know that was part of my job. It was over 90 degrees out there. The dog had diarrhea.
My second impulse was to be angry with my boss. Where do you get off, firing me? You really expected me to clean up after your silly dog? You can take this job and shove it.
My third was to be angry with myself. This was my first real job, and I had failed. I couldn’t even do a simple thing like look after a dog. I’m good for nothing. I’m a loser.
I had clearly failed. But was I thinking about it too narrowly? After all, I was only 14 years old. Before then I had no job experience except doing occasional chores at my father’s store and babysitting the neighbor’s kids. I had rarely ventured into the city.
For more than seven weeks before I was fired, I had gotten up every day at 5 am to catch a train into the city by myself, and I was never late. I put in a full day’s work and took the train back. Apart from the carelessness that got me fired, I had been reasonably responsible.
And I learned something from the experience: In the future, pay more attention to the details of the job, even parts that seem unimportant or demeaning, like cleaning up a boss’s dog’s poop.
In other words, it had been a noble experiment — that didn’t work out as I had hoped.
In subsequent years, my failures were more spectacular. I lost Supreme Court cases. I failed to get Bill Clinton’s support to strengthen unions. I failed to stop the financialization of the economy. I failed in my bid to become governor of Massachusetts. My first marriage failed.
But all of these could also be understood as noble experiments that didn’t work out as I had hoped.
It’s easy never to fail in life. You just never try. Take no risks. Don’t stretch yourself. Stay hermetically sealed inside the safety of your comfort zone. Don’t strive, for fear you’ll fall on your face.
But what’s so bad about falling on your face? At worst, you may break your nose, which is better than trying nothing in order to save face.
For years, I’ve urged my graduating students not to fear failure. Sure, take responsibility for failures. Avoid silly mistakes. Be sensitive to others. But don’t be afraid to fail.
In fact, expect to fail. If you don’t fail many times through your lifetime, you won’t have lived.
The real problem isn’t failure. It’s the failure to bounce back from failure.