Failing to Succeed

My mother was on her deathbed in 1954 (before I was born), and received the last rites. That she is still alive, and still living independently, is an inspiration to me, and a testament to the power of persistence.

A great man once told me that his biggest successes came about because of his “sheer bloody-mindedness.” He didn’t mean this literally; he was just emphasizing in a memorably dramatic way that the key to his success was dogged persistence. Sure he has abundant talent and brains, but the fact that he emphasized his persistence is telling.

I heard an interview with Joan Rivers yesterday morning on Q. I haven’t yet seen the documentary about her (A Piece of Work), but I intend to. Is it a story about a basically insecure person, who is driven to achieve success in the eyes of the world in order to bolster her shaky self-esteem? Or a story of a person who knows how to pick herself up from failure, over and over again, and carry on? I don’t know, but I suppose I shall see once I get hold of the documentary.

Although I dislike Michael Jordan’s public persona, this Nike commercial featuring him is on point.

An issue of Rolling Stone a while back (about September 2008), focussing on comedians, made a big impression on me. The comedians were asked a series of questions, one of which involved describing their worst bomb. Some of the stories were terrifyingly terrible. Yet they are now famous comedians. How did they survive such horrible bombs? How did they manage to screw up their courage to keep at it?

Along the same lines, check the internet for Sasha Baron Cohen’s early work doing a children’s show. He was terrible. Imagine the courage it takes to persist in your chosen career, knowing that you are currently terrible. Yet he did persist, and eventually had great success.

This has important implications for education. Everyone is a beginner at the start, the trick is to keep at it and work hard until you develop skill. The process inevitably involves stumbling and bumbling around, and students need a safe environment where they can go through the process of learning without stigma.

I keep coming back to John Wheeler’s advice to graduate students: “Make as many mistakes as you can, as fast as you can.” Learning how to deal with failure, learning how to learn from mistakes, learning how to use failure as a stepping-stone, these are all valuable skills for students to develop. But current school environments typically induce students to experience anxiety in general, and fear of making mistakes in particular. Via our insane grading procedures, we heavily penalize students for making mistakes, to the extent that they practice mistake-avoidance. This paralyzes them from trying things out, which is essential to learning.

We need to make some changes. We need to allow students to make mistakes freely and without penalty. How we can do this, and still assess them appropriately, and still leave them with incentives for learning, is a story for another day.

It may seem paradoxical, but if students learn to embrace failure as an essential part of the learning process, and learn how to use failure productively, they will learn how to succeed. But if we train them to fear failure (as we routinely do in most schools), then success will become much more difficult.


About Santo D'Agostino

I have taught mathematics and physics since the mid 1980s. I have also been a textbook writer/editor since then. Currently I am working independently on a number of writing and education projects while teaching physics at my local university. I love math and physics, and love teaching and writing about them. My blog also discusses education, science, environment, etc. Further resources, and online tutoring, can be found at my other site
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2 Responses to Failing to Succeed

  1. polamiro says:

    This is SUCH a fantastic article. I’m an SAT math teacher and soon will be certified as an MCAT physics teacher. I notice that my SAT students practice “mistake-avoidance” so much, they just give up and refuse to even look at a math problem. This leads to not even trying, which then leads to (inadvertently) confirming the belief that they’re “just not good at math.” I find that I have to do a lot of self-esteem coaching during my SAT classes in order to get terrified students to just try something once. While I enjoy talking about self-esteem and helping my students confront their fears, I still feel sad for them. They are so fragile and vulnerable when it comes to math. It’s like their entire self-worth is resting on them getting a problem right THE FIRST TIME. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how to tackle this issue in class.

    Molto Grazie, Pola 🙂

    p.s. I used to work for Elsevier as a copy editor. I’m glad I’m not there anymore.

    • Ciao Pola,

      (Or I guess I should rather say “Hola!”)

      Thanks for the kind words, and it’s a pleasure to meet another math/physics type who also loves words (I have done a lot of work for publishing companies over the years).

      The whole structure of our education system needs to change; its heavy emphasis on grades derived from high-stakes testing, and the passing of students from one grade level to the next without training them properly is inhumane. The practice of assigning partial credit means that students can accumulate enough marks to achieve a decent grade without really understanding much; too many years of this eventually leads many students to a crisis.

      It’s a real challenge to tackle this problem in classrooms that operate within the current system. Can you explain in a few words what an SAT teacher does, so that I can try to make further comments that would be relevant for you?

      All the best,

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