Fetishizing Success and Failure
I attended the 2018 Conference on College Composition and Communication in Kansas City recently, the largest gathering of instructors and scholars of writing in higher education. I presented on writing and sticky notes in the Design Thinking Studio, but my absolute favorite panel was on rhetorical failure. In rhetoric and writing studies, we often teach students that if they are not successful in their communication, they must not have understood the audience or rhetorical situation well enough to be persuasive. But that’s not always true – and that’s a ton of pressure on the writer or speaker when elements of a situation may be totally out of one’s control.
One presenter told the story of being one among many community members to attend a local government meeting to protest a plan. They spoke well and covered all angles of the argument. They should have been persuasive. But they lost. Because the thing they were protesting was already a done deal and this meeting a formality that was never going to change anyone’s opinion. We probably all feel like this a lot these days given what’s going on in law and politics.
But one of the biggest messages from this session for me was that we, as a Western society, have long fetishized success…but now we are fetishizing failure too. It’s perhaps most obvious in the Silicon Valley entrepreneurial world now, where stories of the world’s biggest tech giants coming out of dorm rooms and the garages of college dropouts are quickly being replaced by narratives about how many ventures fail before a founder find the “right” one (if ever). Stories abound, like how Spanx founder Sara Blakely’s dad always asked them at dinner, “What did you fail at today?” to encourage his children to experiment and take risks. Silicon Valley’s mantra “fail fast, fail often” is chanted by the start-up world, and entrepreneurs commiserate at FailCons about their bombed businesses.
In higher ed, articles about how to teach students resilience and grit abound, claiming that we don’t teach them to fail or encourage them to do so, so how can they be prepared for the world? Faculty write op-ed about adding “failure” to their courses. Major news outlets like the New York Times are picking up stories about education and failure. There’s even a consortium of major colleges and universities.
In my own work in the Design Thinking Studio, we talk all the time about want students to learn how to fail, to know what it feels like to have an idea they really like shut down by the client or partner so they learn not to take that personally. I’m constantly saying, “failure is just data.” Students buy in to the mantra, but it’s much harder in practice. At best we may be creating an environment for productive frustration rather than failure.
But we also have to acknowledge that failure can be privilege, those with safety nets, economic resources, support are more likely to take risks than those who do not. Most of those garage-dwelling dropouts and dorm room heroes are white males. and we have to acknowledge this as we consider adding failure to the curriculum – what does that even mean? When grades are the coin of the realm, can all of our students afford to take intellectual or economic risks? Is integrating “safe” failure experiences even possible in the traditional constraints of higher education? It’s a lot to think about. Carefully and intentionally.
Here are some of my favorite ideas and questions from the rhetorical failure panel to further spur your thinking.