“Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.” Samuel Beckett
In the early summer of 1991 we thought we had the world by the tail. My husband had just finished his first year of law school and had been accepted to study international law for the summer in London. Hooray! I’m no fool; I quit my job to spend the summer as his “kept woman” in a top-story room in a long-term hotel in Pimlico. We pushed the twin beds together, made simple dinners on the room’s hot plate, and shared the bathroom down the hall with the other two rooms on our floor. We had enough to spend about $10 a day but we were in London, in love, and in luck.
Greg had studied hard all year, treating his law school gig as a full-time job and then some. Everything hinged on the high stakes, end-of-the-year exams—all of that work boiled down to one set of tests, which would in turn determine internships, Law Review placements, and (it felt like) the future.
In July my mom phoned with the results. We huddled with the public pay phone on the stair landing as she read off the grades. Torts, good. Criminal, good. “What about contracts?” He was particularly fond of that course and had worked especially hard.
No. When she repeated the grade, he was silent, stunned. A grade in the basement of grades was what he got.This may seem like a small blip but Greg was bewildered and devastated. He spent the remaining weeks in London going over what might have gone wrong. Apologizing. Regretting. As soon as we arrived back home he headed to the law school. The professor showed him his exam, where he had aced the answers in the first two blue books but the last few were missing completely. Greg was sure he had done them (and pointed out his titles “1 out of 5,” etc., on the blue books) but, at that point, it was done.
. . .
Our culture places a lot of emphasis on achievement: grades, rankings, titles, money. Lately, though, I’ve been much more interested in stories of failure. What do individuals do in the aftermath of failure? Give up? Laugh? Charge forward? Avoid trying entirely? Recently I read about a Stanford professor who assigns students to create a failure resume, a description of every personal, professional, and academic failure and what was learned. What an intriguing (and painful) idea! She says that our failures are just as important as our successes and are indications that we are growing, challenging ourselves, taking risks, and expanding our skills. Since there is a fairly predictable ratio of successes and failures, if you want to have successes, you’re going to have failures, too.
I use Greg’s experience here (with his permission) because it felt big and changed our path. I have a long failure resume of my own that includes things great and small: failing in a calling and learning how to ask for help and look beyond my own discomfort, flopping in giving a lecture and learning to have a back-up plan and ask better questions, and failing spectacularly in the stake musical by forgetting to wear bloomers for a kick line and learning to laugh at myself, be more organized and, well, wear bloomers in a kick line.
As for my husband, he got back on his feet, worked hard for the next two years, and graduated at the peak of a recession. With no job in sight, he joined the Air Force JAG Corps and eventually landed great jobs in the private sector–in contract law, no less. We have been able to live in interesting places and meet some wonderful people. The “failure” ended up opening up many more possibilities & blessings than we had dreamed for ourselves. We’re left with a deep feeling of gratitude for that grade.
. . .
What failures have helped inform your life?
Is it easier to learn from certain kinds of failures than others?
What lessons would be on your failure resume?
*Have you read Hugh B. Brown’s The Currant Bush lately? I love its message of the potential blessings of failure and setbacks.