Understanding and Learning from Failure


Last week I learned that Ursula Le Guin passed away after a long illness on January 22nd.  Le Guin was a famed American novelist, known for her role in the fantasy and sci-fi genres.  She also brought a much-needed feminist and racial lens to the genre – often making her heroes dark-skinned and more nuanced than the macho male characters that tended to be celebrated in science fiction at the time.  My first encounter with Le Guin was part of the required reading in my university days, with The Wizard of Earthsea.  I loved it so much that I ended up reading a number of the Earthsea series books over the years, and still give The Wizard of Earthsea to nieces and nephews when they are teenagers.

Le Guin was born to parents with a diverse set of friends and interests, perhaps contributing to what she would later write about. Her father was an anthropologist, famously collecting data on various tribes of Native Americans in the 1920s. Her mother was a writer, who retold traditional stories from indigenous Californians for the masses.  Together, they raised their children to read frequently, and to engage with other adults in their circle – including Robert Oppenheimer, who later became the subject of one of her books.  She traveled to France and met her future husband, eventually settling in Portland, Oregon with their three children. She went on to write dozens of non-fiction and fiction works for both children and adults.

A while back I came across a commencement address that Le Guin gave in the early 80s at Mills College.  And in it, I found solace in this quote:

Success is somebody else’s failure. Success is the American Dream we can keep dreaming because most people in most places, including thirty million of ourselves, live wide awake in the terrible reality of poverty. No, I do not wish you success. I don’t even want to talk about it. I want to talk about failure.

Because you are human beings, you are going to meet failure. You are going to meet disappointment, injustice, betrayal, and irreparable loss. You will find you’re weak where you thought yourself strong. You’ll work for possessions and then find they possess you. You will find yourself — as I know you already have — in dark places, alone, and afraid.

What I hope for you, for all my sisters and daughters, brothers and sons, is that you will be able to live there, in the dark place. To live in the place that our rationalizing culture of success denies, calling it a place of exile, uninhabitable, foreign.

This week, our 4,000 scholars returned to school, ready to learn their letters, multiplication tables, and chemistry tables.  And so much of what is taught in schools, centers around success -- answering the teacher correctly, scoring points on exams, and completing practice questions right.  But what’s harder to teach, and harder for students to get comfortable with, is what went wrong.  When they fail, it’s so important for them to realize why they failed. It means working with our scholars when they aren’t quite grasping the concepts, and understanding where they have gone wrong. It means seeing their mistakes, learning from them, and turning that process into motivation – so that every time they do fail, they are getting more and more comfortable in Le Guin’s “dark place.”

The full text of her speech can be read here: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/LeftHandMillsCollege.html

- Reshma