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The value of failure

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Last academic term, I had recurring problems with student workers underperforming. They didn't show up (and didn't send word about why). Or they showed up and looked industrious, but failed to complete tasks & projects in anything approaching a timely manner.

Finally, I had to fire one and take another to task. The one taken to task responded with a heartfelt apology, and it became clear that he'd become trapped in a vicious cycle of failure--unable to complete the assigned project, but equally unable to 'fess up and ask for help. The longer this continued, the more ashamed he felt about his failure, and the harder it seemed to admit that he just couldn't handle it.

Never one to miss an opportunity to offer up a motherly lecture, I replied with something I wish somebody had told ME at age 18:


That's a heavy load you've been carrying around, isn't it? I'm betting it's a relief to set it down at last.

Look, kiddo...everybody makes mistakes. And everybody gets in over their head on a project sometimes. Or a relationship. Or a--whatever. That's a given.

Also, although it's rarely discussed openly in adult life: Everybody FAILS. Just flat-out fails--falls flat on their ass in truly spectacular fashion. Sometimes it happens in a mortifyingly obvious public way. That feels worse, at the time, but it's really a gift, because there's no pretending it didn't happen. It's when it happens in private that it's so very tempting to play the cover-up game. "If I can just glue this broken plate back together seamlessly enough, Mom will NEVER have to know..."

The challenge isn't how to avoid ever falling on your ass. You can't. Nobody can. Which is a good thing, believe it or not, because we learn a heck of a lot more from our failures than our successes.

So no, the challenge is not how to remain fail-free and fall-free. The challenge is getting up again. And sometimes that calls for a helping hand. Which, yes, does require you to holler and wave--in a sheepish fashion that makes you feel both stupid and conspicuous--with a hearty cry of, "Hey! Need a little help over here!"

But help comes when you do. It almost always does, when you get past the embarrassment of asking for it. And usually the people who help you up are happy to do it, because they are just awfully grateful the fall wasn't their own (for a change).

Learning how to do that--learning that it's *OK* to do that, and necessary, and healthy--is a more important lesson than anything you will ever encounter in a classroom. So, there you go. I have contributed to your education. :)

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On January 25th, 2012 02:36 am (UTC), buymeaclue commented:
That is an excellent and compassionate lecture, and I thank you for the reminder, and hope that your worker is able to hear it - but if not yet, I am sure it will bounce around in the back of his head and be there when he is.
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On January 25th, 2012 03:56 am (UTC), wordswoman replied:
Alas, he chose to quit. But I hope he learned a few things that will serve him well in future real-world jobs.
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On January 25th, 2012 03:29 am (UTC), jasondwittman commented:
Would that all employers were that reasonable. For some bosses, you can't do anything right.

But really, the only true failure is failure to try -- or show up.
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On January 25th, 2012 04:02 am (UTC), wordswoman replied:
I wouldn't be quite as reasonable if a regular employee behaved that way. But student workers...they're not fully formed yet, y'know? Campus jobs are like bikes with training wheels.
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On January 25th, 2012 04:59 am (UTC), hilarymoonmurph commented:
I'm awed.
You're the best boss ever.
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On January 26th, 2012 10:42 am (UTC), montera commented:
I had a similar problem with one of my student workers. He just dropped off the face of the Earth and stopped communicating, and when I kept pressing him to just contact me and let me know what the status was, he sheepishly confessed that he had been ashamed to let me know he'd failed to do the task. I had to explain that it was essential that he let me know because then I could get someone else to do it. And then I explained that it's OK for him to let me know if a particular project is too much to handle because we can make adjustments—but I can't help in any way if I don't know there's a problem.

I still remember the day I sat my husband down and gave him the "sometimes life just kicks you in the ass for no particular reason" speech. He had gotten all despondent over his few failures because as a smart kid he wasn't used to having any. I had to explain that he won't necessarily get every job even if he IS qualified, that he won't always be able to do his best work, and sometimes bad things will happen to him even when he is being smart and doing his very best. That's just the way it is. I think that's one of the most important (and hardest) lessons that Carleton kids have to learn. Luckily I learned it before I got there.
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