Ever since grad school I’ve been intrigued by the idea of failure, which sat like an incubus on everybody’s mind. It was feared but never openly discussed. At Yale they talked only of success, for which we supposedly were being groomed. Higher education trades in and promises success; that is its main selling point to the hopeful masses. And yet, arguably, it’s our failures that stimulate us to learn and grow.
What do we mean by failure? If you fail a course, it means you didn’t complete the work to the teacher’s satisfaction. To fail in business means to go out of business, to stop operating; when a business stops making money, it fails. A “failed writer” is one who never writes or publishes very much, whose production lags behind expectations (his or her own, or another’s). Failure in this case means a considerable gap between desire and performance.
Failure is therefore a judgment made by others or by oneself. It can become a feeling, which is to say an inner message repeated to the point of instinct. One can feel like a failure despite outward circumstances or the facts of the situation. No one wants to feel like a failure, but almost everyone does at some time or other. Feelings of failure breed shame, depression, and addictions. They are bound up with what matters to us, entwined with our values and our sense of identity.
During my first year in grad school I grew increasingly anxious and neurotic comparing myself to other students, all of whom seemed more intelligent, clever, disciplined, and accomplished. One had read Heidegger in the original; another could quote long passages from Virgil; still another could sling the jargon of deconstruction as deftly as an Italian chef twirling a pizza. Fortunately, the draft came calling just in time. In the world of the Army none of that stuff mattered. The lifer NCO’s I worked for could have cared less about literary theory or the various versions of Wordsworth’s Prelude. Yet their organization controlled nearly half the federal budget, so who was more important?
After a year of this other life, I realized that everyone in grad school had been intimidated by everyone else It wasn’t just me. They might have read Heidegger and Derrida, but I had read Finnegans Wake, and who was more important, really? When I got back to Yale, it was much easier to step back and view the whole value system from the side. That helped me separate real learning from the neurosis of failure. It was, I now realize, the first step on the long journey of staying alive.