Is failure really an option?

Another cool new digital project, coming out of the University of Cincinnati this time, is The Failure Project:

The Failure Project is a digital public archive of failure narratives that aims to generate and circulate healthy conversations about failure. Too often in our schools, our workplaces, and our community organizations, failure is stigmatized to such a degree that students, teachers, artists, musicians, scientists, and innovators are unwilling to take risks in their intellectual and creative endeavors. This is the wrong attitude.

What would our schools, workplaces, and communities look like if we weren’t afraid to fail? What would our world look like if we took bigger risks?

The Failure Project is about conversation. It’s about taking risks. It’s about you connecting with others over shared experiences of failure, making failure a speakable, de-stigmatized part of our lives. Our hope is that, through this archive, we can begin to see failure as something to celebrate rather than fear, as something to experience productively rather than as a final pronouncement of who we are and what we’re capable of.

I love the idea of this, and not just because it feels somehow akin to Harlot.  My research and teaching are all about how individuals and communities construct and share rhetorical narratives, stories with a persuasive bent. This project made me recognize how rarely I’ve encountered stories of failure, or rather, stories that conclude with failure. Indeed, even this call for failure narratives seems to imply that they are/should be angled in the direction of success.

The subtitle of the project page is that popular Samuel Beckett line — Try again. Fail again. Fail better. — which got me thinking about whether, or at least how often, we can let a story actually end without some compulsion towards any kind of happy ending. Even Beckett, not the most cheerily optimistic guy, seems to be suggesting progress, improvement through persistent effort.

But I’m not sure I buy it — Beckett was more likely, I’d guess, to be advocating failure on a more massive scale (epic fail?) than to be suggesting baby steps towards success. But then, again, does his line becomes a narrative of progress, of success at failing? Before I get any more tangled, my question is kinda simple:

How often do you come across or tell a story of failure
that doesn’t get a positive spin, even just “lesson learned”?

Are there some communities or cultures
in which failure narratives are more/less allowed?

And, well, why?

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2 thoughts on “Is failure really an option?

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Kate! And your question is a good one. Looking forward to seeing others’ thoughts here (or in the archive!).

    We love Harlot down here… Cheers!

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