Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)
The start of a new school year always poses questions about success or failure. For many students, dreams and hopes often lie somewhere between A and B. Try telling a student who didn’t get the grades she hoped for that she didn’t ‘fail’ and she will probably bite your head off.
I think we need a new definition of failure. Samuel Beckett’s idea of failing again and again until we get better at whatever we are trying for is a useful place to start. Like so many writers I remember most the commissions I didn’t get, the staff positions I was overlooked for, the articles that didn’t sell, the novels that remained unfinished, the stories that didn’t quite make it, the terrible poems and the over ambitious film projects.
I have perfect recall of all my ‘failures.’ I could write a great book. I’d call it: Spectacular. It would be an account of all the things I tried that fell flat on their face, of all the things I tried that seemed like great ideas at the time.
Beckett reminds us that we can only get better at failing. I heard yesterday about a girl who has sat her GCSE English exam eleven times. The government has said that students who fail to get English and Maths will have to carry on sitting the exams until they pass at grade C. Some students are going to be sitting their exams more than eleven times; they will have to keep on failing until they pass.
No doubt this is a horrifying prospect for many parents and teachers of students who truly struggle with exams. To force a young person to fail and fail again seems cruel. We are right to want to protect young people from feeling worthless, but saving them from failure is not going to help them succeed.
Beckett’s definition of failure asks us to reconsider failure as possibly something positive. Say the word failure aloud again and again, and inevitably the flabby ‘f’ will depress all the air and energy from your body. The words failure and deflate feel the same in the mouth. Failure equals a slump. Failure is heaviness in defeat.
But whenever I read Beckett’s words I feel a lift, a racing feeling, a wanting to get back to where I left off, so that I can try again, do something different.
And that really is the key to understanding failure. When we fail, we are given an opportunity to do things another way, put a new spin on them, rip them up and start all over again. Looked at this way, failure is positively invigorating.
The trouble is that so many people (and I’ve been there) think that failure is the ‘end.’ It is the sum total of all we amount to. This is a form of zero thinking. It usually runs something like this: this is the best I can do, and obviously this isn’t good enough, therefore I’m a useless human being. I can bet that girl who took her English exam eleven times wasn’t thinking about failing better each time she went to the exam hall. I bet she was running through the usual script of being useless at English.
If we take the deflation and defeat out of failure by instead thinking of it as a form of reaching then it can help us to stretch that much further. We might get within fingertip distance one time, but just knowing that we nearly got there, we nearly touched it, can push us on to the next level of failure. That is failing better.