Failure Is a Good Thing

Jon Carroll

Jon Carroll started at the San Francisco Chronicle editing the crossword puzzle and writing TV listings. He has been a columnist for the paper since 1982. Carroll has also held editorial positions at Rolling Stone, The Village Voice and other magazines. Terry Lorant hide caption

itoggle caption Terry Lorant

Swinging Forward

From the 'All Things Considered' archives, Nov. 25, 1991.

Last week, my granddaughter started kindergarten, and, as is conventional, I wished her success. I was lying. What I actually wish for her is failure. I believe in the power of failure.

Success is boring. Success is proving that you can do something that you already know you can do, or doing something correctly the first time, which can often be a problematical victory. First-time success is usually a fluke. First-time failure, by contrast, is expected; it is the natural order of things.

Failure is how we learn. I have been told of an African phrase describing a good cook as "she who has broken many pots." If you've spent enough time in the kitchen to have broken a lot of pots, probably you know a fair amount about cooking. I once had a late dinner with a group of chefs, and they spent time comparing knife wounds and burn scars. They knew how much credibility their failures gave them.

I earn my living by writing a daily newspaper column. Each week I am aware that one column is going to be the worst column of the week. I don't set out to write it; I try my best every day. Still, every week, one column is inferior to the others, sometimes spectacularly so.

I have learned to cherish that column. A successful column usually means that I am treading on familiar ground, going with the tricks that work, preaching to the choir or dressing up popular sentiments in fancy words. Often in my inferior columns, I am trying to pull off something I've never done before, something I'm not even sure can be done.

My younger daughter is a trapeze artist. She spent three years putting together an act. She did it successfully for years with the Cirque du Soleil. There was no reason for her to change the act — but she did anyway. She said she was no longer learning anything new and she was bored; and if she was bored, there was no point in subjecting her body to all that stress. So she changed the act. She risked failure and profound public embarrassment in order to feed her soul. And if she can do that 15 feet in the air, we all should be able to do it.

My granddaughter is a perfectionist, probably too much of one. She will feel her failures, and I will want to comfort her. But I will also, I hope, remind her of what she learned, and how she can do whatever it is better next time. I probably won't tell her that failure is a good thing, because that's not a lesson you can learn when you're five. I hope I can tell her, though, that it's not the end of the world. Indeed, with luck, it is the beginning.

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