Fail Again. Fail Better.

Allen Foresta | October 21, 2010

The poet Gary Snyder writes about “the real work,” which he defines, tautologically but to me compellingly, as “what is to be done.” In my recent encounters with ideas bearing on the real work of research and information services, I’ve noticed the recurrence of the theme of failure, and the willingness to fail, as a prerequisite for the understanding and enactment of growth and success.

For example: the library hosts a year-long series of frequent informal gatherings called Socratic Conversations, and the session for October 14th focused on the question “What’s Right About Being Wrong?” as dealt with in (among other places) several new books recently added to our collection. As a librarian, I’m always interested in the Library of Congress Subject Headings under which books are cataloged; ones used for these books include “Certainty,” “Errors,” and “Fallibility,” which lead to other interesting (and sometimes unexpected) titles in our library and others. The Conversation intended to examine individual and cultural attitudes towards being mistaken, strategies for dealing with being wrong, and the benefits of acknowledging and assimilating one’s own mistakes and failures.

The positive aspect of failure is also explored in a book library staff members read and discussed this summer, Seth Godin’s Linchpin:  Are You Indispensable? This book (which is cataloged under several Library of Congress Subject Headings including “Creative thinking,” “Value added,” and “Work—Psychological aspects”) among other notions argues that the ability to risk and incorporate failure is a critical element in attaining one’s full potential: not quite the linchpin in the process of becoming a creative thinker/artist/linchpin, but certainly an indispensable component of being vital to an enterprise (including one’s own individual enterprise).

I’ve also recently begun reading Stephen Brookfield’s Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher in preparation for attending an intensive program on the promotion of information literacy. I’m participating in the Intentional Teacher track, which presumably means that my work as a library instructor will be more intentional (less accidental?) when I’ve emerged from the “immersion;” that’s the hope, anyway. Brookfield speaks to the teacher’s obligation to “hunt” her/his assumptions about the structure and functioning of the world and all aspects of the teacher-student relationship.  In a telling section, he presents an argument for putting oneself regularly in the situation of trying to learn something new and difficult.  “As people used to orchestrating others’ learning, we probably won’t enjoy feeling frightened, embarrassed, and intimidated when we find ourselves in the learner role.  But if we care about helping our own students learn, the experience of struggling as learners ourselves will be seen as a kind of privilege . . . When we fail to learn something as quickly and easily as we would like, we experience all the public embarrassment and private humiliation, the fear, anxiety, and pain that some of our own students are feeling.” In some sense Brookfield’s contention is that by experiencing imaginatively our students’ struggle with and fear of failure, teachers and librarians not only gain in self-knowledge and empathy, but possibly also the ability to convey the value of learning by means of failing, or at the possibility of failing—at the end of the day, at the heart of constructivist theory and active learning.

In one of his late works, Samuel Beckett, a writer whose apparently bleak worldview belies a deeply comic and ultimately oddly optimistic perspective, may have best stated what might be the mantra of everyone engaged in the real work of teaching and learning:  “Fail again.  Fail better.”