I turned on the radio this morning and heard a familiar voice: my old friend and mentor Jon Carroll, delivering an essay for National Public Radio's "This I Believe" series.
"This week, my granddaughter started kindergarten," Jon began.
... 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, Jon said; failure is how we learn. (Listen to the essay, and read the transcript, here.) This is a bummer, of course, and profoundly counter to the all-children-are-above-average mandate of the No Child Left Behind Act, but that doesn't make it less true.
Jon writes five columns a week for the San Francisco Chronicle (today's, about his recent trip to the eastern Sierra, is typically gorgeous and poignant and very funny). "Each week," he said on NPR, "I am aware that one column is going to be the worst column of the week. I didn'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."
And how does he feel about that?
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.
I think a lot about failure. In baseball, a successful hitter is one who fails two-thirds of the time. In autumn, the glorious colors of the leaves are the result of chlorophyll failure. And as the economist John Maynard Keynes more or less said, "In the long run, we all fail."
Recently I learned about a book that attempts to help parents teach their children to live with failure. The Blessing of a Skinned Knee was written by clinical psychologist Wendy Mogel, who had been seeing a lot of privileged, miserable teenagers in her therapy practice. Her conclusion: kids need more risk in their lives--more than they get in car seats they're required to use until they're nearly driving age; more than they get from adult-supervised "play dates"; certainly more than they get from parents who do their homework for them, write their college essays for them, and threaten to sue their professors over a grade of less than A. The subtitle of Mogel's book is "Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children," but as those bagel ads used to say, "You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's." Mogel's book is being used by nonobservant Jews, by Christian church groups, and by secular parents who are tired of schlepping, hovering, and worrying about their children's success.
In my work, too, I think about failure. When I do creative work like name development, I'm aware that 99.99% of my output will "fail." Only one name will be chosen. Yet that one successful name stands on the shoulders of all the names that don't make it--I build on my failures to create success.
We remember Thomas Edison as a great inventor, but as one of my naming mentors was fond of reminding us, in fact he was a master of failure. "Results?" he once said to an impatient critic. "Why, man, I've gotten lots of results! If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is often a step forward."
May we all fail as successfully as he did.