Monday, January 9, 2012

The Benefit (and Deconstruction) of Failure

by Julia Buckley
I recently watched this clip of J.K. Rowling's 2008 Harvard commencement address. She called it "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination." I thought it was a stunning address, and that the seemingly shy Rowling was actually quite a forceful speaker when she warmed to her theme.

In addition to that inspirational speech, I am often inspired by my senior students' college essays, which they bring to me for editorial help. One young woman, in a recent essay, suggested (with sincerity, I think) that failure was more important to her than was success; her assertion was that she learned more from failure, and that ultimately it was a more valuable experience.

This wise interpretation of life's setbacks, both by Rowling and my student, had me thinking of the various setbacks I've suffered in life. For a writer, every setback, every perceived "failure," is a slap to the ego, or so I have always seen it--and I assume that other writers might be tempted to view it in the same way.

But if I apply Jacques Derrida's notion of Deconstruction, then I can look at success and failure as binary oppositions, with success being the privileged term. However, my students' interpretation of the two make failure the privileged term, and suggests that through failure, one learns, grows, and ultimately finds benefit, so that failure itself guarantees a level of success.

However, deconstruction also asserts that language is ambiguous, uncertain, ever-changing, and that existence has no center. Derrida would suggest, I believe, that the undecidability of any text, including the one I just created above, implies a multiplicity of meanings, and therefore ultimately has no meaning, or at least not one ultimate meaning.

Writing (and the complex universe of publishing) can render anyone existential, and ultimately we all have to make our own decisions about the notions of success or failure, but these two works--a great writer's speech and a young woman's tentative paper--have me feeling optimistic about my own perceived defeats.

A philosophical challenge for the day. :)

(photo: my son at Lake Michigan, 2011).


Sheila Connolly said...

The great majority of people encounter failures throughout their lives--romances that crashed, jobs they lost or never obtained, opportunities missed or rejected. I think what is critical is how individuals respond to those losses, whether they sink into a permanently depressed mode or decide to fight back--make lemonade from lemons. Like me, who tried out five careers until I finally found one that worked--and that lets me use the experience from all the prior ones!

Diane said...

Your student was right in that it can be a positive experience, if you let it. I don't think there is anyone who is charmed enough not to have some failures. Or what others might consider failures. It's just that not everyone always see them as such. They move on, which is the better way to handle it. Failure is as much a part of life - and living - as is success. And what is one person's success might not be a success to another. And not all failures - or successes - are solely from our own efforts (or lack of them). Sometimes others - be they adversaries or friends - can affect the results.

Maybe we are too invested in 'success' itself. We change and grow all through life, not just during childhood. Our wants and needs also change. Life is about learning, growing and experiencing. Without what we have come to call 'success' and 'failure', we can't do that. We exist, but that's all. Both are part of living.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Sheila mentioned lost jobs. Losing a job or even quitting one can feel like such a black mark, because as a society, we don't talk about it -- more perhaps than most other perceived failures. When someone else is in that situation, I point out that almost no one reaches, oh say, 35, without getting fired or leaving a job under unpleasant circumstances -- and I've watched amazement and relief flood the other person as they realize it isn't just them, it's a common experience, and they'll bounce back. Talking about "failure" is the first step in seeing it differently and learning from it.

Julia Buckley said...

You are all wise philosophers!