Failure Academy

“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.

“Umm….plus”

“What? A+?!!”

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.

36 thoughts on “Failure Academy

  1. What a really wonderful, thought-provoking post, Annie! I hope it doesn’t mean that I have to post that resume here. I think I’ll take it as a private exercise for the time being.

    Your post, however, brought back many memories. My husband got his PhD in 1991 and then we were off to Florida for his professorship. The years of schooling, the thesis, the orals, the dissertation defense. It was, at times, agonizing. It was so stressful that he had a long bout of shingles in the midst of it. But, finally, we moved on.

  2. Wow – something I’d be really good at! A failure resume. LOVE the idea. Am totally going to create one.

    The only question is – how to limit the failures to just one page? How to find just the right ones? :-)

    Great post, friend. Thanks for sharing.

  3. I love Hugh B Browns talk. Couple of years ago, I was prompted to put the cassette in the player for my husband while he drove to work. On his way to work he listened to side A which is “Profile of a Prophet.” He works an hour away and was able to listen to the full talk. When he arrived at work he was pulled into the managers office where he was promptly told he lost his job because of something my husband completely denies ever happened. When he returned to his car to drive home, the tape flipped over to the Currant Bush. Talk about a tender mercy! If you can read the story, that’s great, but if you have the chance to purchase it on CD it’s something you need to listen to.

  4. Thank you Annie, for this wonderful post.

    My failure resume would be quite long. Where to start? But I’ve been amazed at how some of my mistakes and failures have transformed into blessings.

  5. Annie, this is so thought-provoking! The one big “failure” that comes to mind is when I sang a solo at a regional young women’s conference, with Ruth Funk, the general YW pres., in attendance. I was so terrified that I could barely squeak out the song, my voice cracking and off-key, and I even forgot the words and sang “la, la, la, la” for an entire line. After the meeting the stake pres. came up to me and said, “Well, that was a challenge, wasn’t it?”

    A challenge, it was. And even though I was completely humiliated and actually went home and went to bed for the rest of the day, hoping to block the whole thing out, I did learn much from that experience, including that not everything one is asked to do in the church is equivalent to a calling and that sometimes it’s okay to say no. Also, I learned that while I am good singing in a group, solos are not my forte. :)

  6. I have been reflecting a bit lately about how I always thought that once I was married I would be an “adult” and would have learned everything I needed to know to succeed in life. Foolish me! Now that I’ve been married over 11 years, I look back and realize how much I’ve learned about so many areas of life. Failures have been a significant part of that learning. I think I have perhaps learned even more as an “adult” than in the previous years because the stakes are higher; the potential consequences of failing are even greater.

  7. Oh, wow. I don’t comment here often, but this post was a perfect mirror of much of my short little 4 years of marriage.

    And not law school. No, try a Bachelor’s. For those who think a Bachelor’s is “easy” I think it would do us well to remember that some people simply aren’t book smart. My husband is one of those people. He is one of the most intelligent, kind, and outgoing people I’ve ever met, but tests and essays make him want to punch a hole in the wall. His struggles, and oftentimes failure, in school have defined a big part of our life together. As his wife, it’s heartbreaking to watch him work so hard only to fail, and then fail again.

    BUT I can honestly say that this trial has made us stronger. I’ve learned that that husband of mine has a seriously resilient spirit to keep pushing on despite the discouragement, and I love him all the more for that. And if there’s one lesson we’ve learned in 4 years, it’s to (in the word’s of Finding Nemo’s Dori) “just keep swimming, just keep swimming.”

    What doesn’t kill you only makes you stronger, right?

  8. Wow! Such a great reminder that to fail is not ultimate failure. I laugh, just because I remember so many embarassing failing moments in my life! I’m grateful that they have encouraged me to laugh and move on. Not all failures are laughable, but it’s great to be able to learn something on the journey.

  9. This post describes my first year law school experience exactly. It’s difficult to convey the panic and sheer terror final exams instill in first year law students. I guess it’s a bit different for those graduating from Yale, Harvard or the handful of other top schools, but everything (everything!) rides on a single test – your summer job offers, your future job prospects, everything. At least that’s what you’re told as a law student, and that’s what everyone believes. Hence the panic.

    As for me, I bombed the final of one of my favorite classes: Property, and I don’t think I’ve ever been as devastated about anything else in my entire life. It was awful. I did well in my other classes and landed a great job for the summer, but that B minus in Property will forever haunt me. And since it’s so long ago no one really cares anymore, I pulled my grades up during my second year so that I was second in my law school class. It was quite an accomplishment, but even successes like getting top grades doesn’t guarantee future success (or vice versa), as my legal career certainly will attest :)

    Anyway, thanks for the trip down memory lane, Annie! I’m glad things worked out for your family.

  10. Camille, what a timely blessing. I just about wore that tape out as a teenager and college student. You’re right; nothing beats listening to him tell the story.

    Stephen, yes. This particular experience in law school felt like a perfect example of justice without mercy!

    Melissa, thanks for sharing your experience. (I remember a professor telling us once that one of the major things that distinguishes humans from primates is our ability to tell stories and learn vicariously from each other’s experiences. I think it’s important to share the failure lessons with each other so we can all learn, too.) I love that you kept going, “la-la”s and all. That says a lot about you.

    Natalie, thank you for articulating just what I was feeling about witnessing my husband’s struggle. I grew to love him more watching his resilience, too. In a marriage our successes and failures become so intertwined with each others’ that it’s especially difficult to watch a spouse struggle, I think.

  11. I had a very similar experience with my first Contracts final in law school. I quickly figured out that with that one grade, even if I got straight 4.0 (A+) on every other test of every other class, I could no longer graduate in the top 10 percent. Because of one test. After crying a lot, I was liberated. I would still graduate. I would still learn a lot. I had other skills and contacts that still gave me job opportunities. But because my GPA was already decimated, I was free to take scary classes, classes my husband and others refused to take because of the very real possibility that it would destroy their GPAs. I freed myself to not write on to the Law Review (audition) because it would have been a miserable experience for me and without the top ten grades, wasn’t “necessary” to my now very different resume. I was released from all the Type A insanity of law school and as a result the experience, while still very challenging, was far more rewarding than it would have otherwise been.

    My husband (embracer of all things Type A by nature) did everything right. He graduated #6 in our class. He was the Lead Articles Editor of the Law Review. He got the coveted summer job opportunities. He did everything “right.” But because of capricious personality differences at those summer jobs, he was not offered a job. We graduated law school with no job opportunity for him, with a newborn baby, looming debt and great fears. The job he eventually got changed his life and made his career because it taught him skills that have led to every job thereafter and that he never would have had if he’d gotten the jobs he thought he wanted. And the skills I got in the different path I took in law school allowed me to have a quirky little practice on the side, out of my home while raising our 5 kids which never would have been possible with the original big corporate career track I thought I wanted. Our failures have made all the difference in where we are now.

    I love the movie Meet the Robinsons, in part because of one scene where Lewis is applauded for failing–because failure teaches you a lot and success, eh not so much. Ain’t it the truth!

  12. I saw Malcolm Gladwell discussing his book, Outliers, on Charlie Rose. He talked about successful people in many fields, and what they have in common with each other rather than with other people in their fields. One thing is time: they gave themselves enough time to actually master what they were doing. They met as many failures as the rest of us, but they powered through and did it again and again and again. I am guessing that I have already quit a great number of things I might have mastered had I really just done it again and again and again.

    http://www.gladwell.com/outliers/index.html

  13. What an interesting thought…a failure resume. I’m not sure I could stand it. Sometimes mistakes are unbearable and you just want them to go away. Other times I have been able to realize how I could have better prepared, and then I make sure to do that! Each time I try to say, “Okay, that didn’t go well. What can I do to change it for the next time.” That has given me a feeling of personal power rather than defeat. The hardest lessons have come in my parenting when I have a bad mommy moment. I have learned to learn from the experience and not repeat it. What a gift self reflection can be! If we can forgive ourselves and get over that initial disappointment, growth can happen. There are reasons and learning in our failures. It’s really hard to bear the discomfort sometimes, but I can feel the refinement happening with each experience. That’s what it’s all about, right?

  14. Natalie H, I love your comment. I could just repeat that here for my own comment.

    I sometimes wonder why marriage isn’t as blissful as they made it sound in YW lessons. But honestly, our ruts tend to bring us closer together–eventually. :)

    I love this idea about a failure resume. I think that sometimes we all walk around trying to convince everybody else of how perfect we are (not consciously).

    My favorite quote (by who knows?) is: “The church is not a museum for saints, it is a workshop for sinners.”

    Thanks for this post.

  15. Interesting thoughts. I see my experiences through a different lens, I suppose. I haven’t always been the best at every thing, but I can’t think of many things I have failed in my life. I attended law school and was not the top of my class, but that was NOT a failure. I did my best at the time and for my circumstances.

    The only things I count as true failures are when I didn’t even try something to give myself a chance. When I didn’t attend a class in undergrad and I ended up with a B, that was a failure. When I attended every contracts class and read the material and studied hard and ended up with a B, that was NOT a failure.

    Really I try to see life as a series of experiences to learn from, not to label as success or failure.

  16. I have definitely had some less-than-stellar experiences in school and in life. Last year I felt prompted to start a PhD program, so we moved to a new place and made a lot of changes in our lives for me to do it. And I was surprised to find that I was miserable and I didn’t do as great a job as I thought I would. I’m still not sure what all the reasons for last year were, but it was certainly a learning experience for me. I didn’t totally ‘fail’, especially not in the academic sense, but it was not my best time and I learned a lot about myself and what I can and can’t do. And six months later I am totally happy being ‘just’ a mom at home full-time. Facing up to things we haven’t done well at can be a great opportunity for growth, but it is really hard at times too. My husband and I are both perfectionists and both very ‘Type A’ that generally do well on things like school or work. We’ve both learned a lot in our marriage so far about making mistakes, owning them, and moving on.

  17. This is a topic I think about often. Thanks for this essay, Annie.

    When I do mock interviews with students, I usually ask them what their three greatest strengths are AND their three greatest weaknesses. Self-honesty in that way can be a good thing, imo.

    I just finished a fabulous book by one of my new heroines, Wendy Ulrich. It’s called Weakness is not Sin — it really helped me appreciate more how part of mortality is to learn to discern between weakness and sin, and to let Christ help us find strength in spite of weakness.

  18. The first essay I ever “published” was in a high school literary magazine. It was about running for student office seven times and losing six. Not getting to do student government left me free to discover theater. Never making the main cast in our high school musicals helped me to discover debate. Each closed door taught me to work harder to find the next. My failure DEFINED me; some people talk about becoming who they are in spite of failure. But I’m with you–I feel exactly the opposite.

  19. PS Camille, What about that Hugh B. Brown talk about the currant bush? Another great one talking about being cut down only so that you can be made better. Ultimately, it is our testing and trial and learning to trust God that is the purpose of life.

  20. I’ve been dealing with a failed marriage of 18 years that took me by surprise 2 months ago. Someone told me early on that my kids will only do as well as I do and that they will remember how I handle it. If I stayed in bed all day and became bitter because of choices that my husband made, then that would have a more negative impact than what their father had done and that I needed to stay strong and they would watch to see how I dealt with this failure. Already this “failure” has made me a much better mother than I was before. I would never wish this experience on anyone, but I’m already grateful for the lessons I have learned.
    Thank you Annie, you always get it, that’s why I love you.

  21. I talked about this my Letter to a Parent that I did for you (I think), but I received a blessing from Ryan once telling me: “Your children will learn more from watching you pick yourself up and try again, than if you never made a mistake.” I remind myself of that over and over.

    LOVE the failure resume idea. Great essay, Annie!

  22. Like everyone else, choosing how to deal with failure has fundamentally affected my life. At 34, all I know is you’ve got to keep taking risks. If you’re not trying you may never fail but you’ll certainly never succeed. Living in a way that is genuine, honest to yourself and your talents, is risky. You could look dumb or “fail.” There is always the choice to retreat to live a smaller, safer life. Or LIVE BIG (with failure).

    There are attending gospel principles, like faith and the parable of the talents, that are highly relevant here, too. I think when trying to live a big, risky life, is an act of faith.

  23. (i have to respond after Red :-)

    i loved these thoughts Annie! and i’ve loved the comments. JenJ, so sorry! Loved your perspective though!
    We all want to avoid “failure” in our endeavors, but it’s true that the hard things are what make us stronger (if we make it through!) failures make great stories. overcoming problems and setbacks are the ingredients for becoming a hero. and things just work out after all, as long as we follow the spirit and do what is right. ♥

  24. I’ve been thinking all afternoon about the other components of failure you’ve brought up: it can be freeing and lead to the road less traveled (AngieF), refining (Melissa M), defining (Nan), strengthening (Jen), humbling and directing us to Christ (FoxyJ, M&M). And uncomfortable and painful, pretty consistently.

    ESO, I love the connection you made to Outliers and mastery. There’s a reason to persist through failure right there, as well as Jessica’s great point that our kids learn pretty directly from our responses to mistakes and failures. If they don’t see us fail, how will they know what to do when they do?

    Red, one of my kids tends to shy away from trying things for fear of failing (which I recognize from my own tendencies–for instance, staying in the boat year after year instead of giving waterskiing a try). It really *is* an act of faith to live ready to try, ready to fail. Yet failing hopefully shouldn’t feel like a breach of faith but a way to exercise it again or differently.

  25. Since there seems to be a law school theme going on here, I’ll chime in. I got academically disqualified during my first attempt in law school. As a result, I had a two year waiting period before I could reapply at another accredited law school. During this waiting period, and as a result of what had happened to me in law school, I found my calling in life.

    Now, I’m back in law school at a school that is both much higher ranked and much better suited to my personality, and I’m on law review. I’m much happier than I would have been if I hadn’t had what most people in the legal profession would consider to be a career ending failure.

  26. I’ve been dealing with a failed marriage of 18 years that took me by surprise 2 months ago.

    I’m SO sorry.

    “Your children will learn more from watching you pick yourself up and try again, than if you never made a mistake.”

    That brings something my therapist has been talking about with regard to all the weakness I deal with (chronic illness, etc). It’s been so hard not to focus on how much I miss as a mom because of my health; she’s been trying to help me see that there is more to my mothering than just what I can or can’t DO.

    Another friend said something along these lines, “I don’t want my headstone to say, ‘She was a human doing’ — I want to be a human being.”

    Hard when you have spent so much of your life defining self by the DOs.

    I also struggle with helping my children be goal-oriented and working hard, but not letting the checklists, grades, etc. define them. I want them to be more wise than I have been.

  27. I also struggle with helping my children be goal-oriented and working hard

    And now I want to correct my grammar, because good people don’t mess up that way. HA.

  28. one other thought that has always given me comfort is Ether 12:27

    — And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them.–

    i think of weaknesses like failures; as “opportunities” for us to grow and evolve in ways that will ultimately lead us back to God if we keep perspective and hang in there with faith.

    I also look at my weaknesses and take heart that someday those very things that have held me back and caused me anguish will apparently someday become defining strengths(!)

    Based on my history, this means I’m set to be ultra rockin’ awesome one of these…well, let’s just say eventually. ♥

  29. One of my many failures was teaching. In order to get a teaching degree I had to student teach in Jr. High. I did an awful job–and I’m not saying this out of false modesty. I had no control over my class and my lessons were poorly planed and executed. I was clueless about what to do.

    I’ve reflected a lot on this experience over the years. I became a mother and started reading some very good discipline books. As I started reading one book in particular one piece of advice really struck me hard. Immediately I thought, “That’s what I did wrong!!! That was one of my main mistakes!” It happened to be a common mistake among parents and teachers. I’ve also figured out other tricks that could have helped me avoid that catastrophic teaching experience. Because of this experience, I am a much better parent. While student teaching I prayed for it to magically get better, but I learned that there are no shortcuts in gaining experience.

  30. I am dealing with failure right now. After 2 years of planning, working (HARD) and spending money to get my business up and running I have closed it. I am in knots. On the one hand, I am more relaxed, healthier,and can honestly look back and make reams of lists of what I have learned and what it DID accomplish for me. On the other hand, I’m embarrassed and sick about the money it cost to try. If it wasn’t for the money I could probably take it in better stride.

  31. Christine, so sorry to hear about your business. I hope the knots loosen and your pain lessens as time goes on. I’m impressed you can see the bright side already, right in the midst of it.

    JenJ, sending love your direction. Thanks for sharing your experience here.

    Blue, I love that scripture and the many layers of that passage. I think sometimes our weaknesses become our strengths because we work hard to make them so. Lately I’ve realized that sometimes what we perceive as weaknesses were strengths all along, just needing to be viewed with a different lens.

    rk, Bravo on turning those lessons into strengths!

  32. Because of a number of circumstances, I found myself running varsity cross-country and track in 7th grade. It was, at times, exciting, but often it was very difficult. I was barely 100 lbs. and developmentally, I was 3-5 years behind most of my competitors.

    In that early spring I had a week long hospital stay. I came out pretty weak and pitiful. My coach still chose to place me in the 3200 race within a week of that stay. I told him that I wasn’t really in a position to compete and he replied that we don’t just run the race only when we have a chance of winning -I needed the experience. At the time it seemed cruel. I raced in a blizzard, not only did I place last-I was also lapped (so humiliating), and I didn’t feel well.

    But I did need that race, I think about it all the time. I’m a better person for getting lapped:) I don’t necessarily have to be a competitor in order to take something on, it still may be worth my while. And, 3 years later, in a tornado (seriously), I won a huge 3200 race.

  33. Yes, Ether 12:27 and D&C 117:12-13.

    I think here the Lord gives a wonderful promise. Oliver was one those whose every enterprise seems to prosper. However, the Lord saw fit to remind the Saints that his sacrifice was more sacred for him than his increase.

    We’re left wondering what the “fall” was that the Lord was referring to, but that’s just a reminder that not all failures are equally visible. We all fail; if by nothing else, then by never daring to try things that look difficult.

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