I don’t know if it’s because this attitude is becoming more prevalent, or because as an educator and graduate student, I’ve started leaning in and listening more carefully to what people say, but I often hear complaints about how our society has moved away from valuing success to tolerating mediocrity and failure. Some complain about how elementary schools have taken away the element of competition, offering “participation medals” to all who are involved in activities like Sports Day. Some bemoan the attitudes of “poor losers,” pointing out that instead of the gracious acceptance of defeat, people are simply lashing out at those who win, succeed, or do better than them. Some find issue with parents who only want their children to be “good enough,” rather than wanting their children to excel, to go above and beyond in any given pursuit. Some suggest that we’ve gotten too lenient with grading practices, and that the corporatization of education (combined with the effects of policies like “No Child Left Behind”) mean that students believe they’re entitled to a better grade simply because they’ve paid for their studies, and that educators are afraid to (or not allowed to) fail a student because it’s believed that being held back in a particular subject or grade will damage their self-esteem.
Naturally, I agree in part with some of these criticisms. As a teaching assistant in a post-secondary system, where students pay tuition, I have observed students who do feel entitled to the grade they “paid for.” As a child who grew up playing sports in school, albeit certainly not as a talented athlete, I amassed a number of ribbons for anything from 7th to 3rd place, never 1st or 2nd, and don’t believe that these should be dispensed with completely in favour of “participation.” As someone who often struggles with issues of procrastination and a lack of motivation, I most certainly understand wanting to encourage our children to learn to harness their capabilities, to develop good work habits, and to experiment in pushing themselves beyond their comfort zones. As someone who has observed how jealousy and envy can manifest themselves in surprising and upsetting ways, I agree that there needs to be a better way of dealing with the accomplishments and lives of others.
However, I patently disagree with statements that condemn “bad losers” and “people who just don’t succeed/try hard enough/want it enough/spend enough time on something/care enough/don’t value success/drop out/quit” to one half of some absurd binary about human potential and accomplishment: winners vs. losers. I wholeheartedly oppose the mindset that posits success as a simple result of individual work, of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps and bloody well getting on with it. Because as I’ve observed, in my own life and in the lives of others, both failure and success are never so simple as we would like them to be.
- What happens when you grow up with a parent who emotionally, verbally, or physically abuses you when you don’t achieve good grades? What happens when you’re shamed in a classroom by a teacher? What happens when your classmates call you stupid, slow, or clumsy? How might that develop into an absolute fear of failure later on in life? How might individuals who have suffered that kind of shaming and abuse go on to replicate those attitudes in their interactions with others?
- What happens when a child simply does not have the physical or intellectual capability to achieve the same goals as their parents, siblings, or peers? What happens if they try their very hardest in math class, but struggle with things like spatial reasoning? What if there’s not adequate support for students with learning disabilities?
- What happens when your definition of success simply differs from others’? What if you value the pursuit of art over the pursuit of financial security? What if success is simply getting through the day when you’re struggling with severe depression or anxiety?
- What happens when you have to choose between some nebulous pursuit of success and the very real need for daily survival? What if you can’t afford to pursue higher education? What if you have to drop out of school to take care of your family?
- What happens when you’re willing to pursue success at any cost? When you’re willing to look past ethics as a means to an end?
- What happens when our culture associates male identity with the accrual of capital and romantic partnership? What happens to you, as a man, when you lose your job, your house, and your partner? What if you have to declare bankruptcy?
- What happens when the expectations placed on you because of past successes become impossible to deal with? What if you’re a child prodigy who buckles under or refuses to deal with the pressure? What if you don’t want to have to keep on living up to the expectations of others?
- What happens when the various systems that endorse racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, or classism make it structurally impossible (if not at least very, very difficult) to enter into, let alone succeed in various environments? What if you have to choose between your safety and sanity or your success?
Look, I understand how difficult it is, I really do.
I know how hard it is to talk about the expectations we put on ourselves, and onto our children. I know how badly we want the best for our children, how much we want them to see their potential, to know their limits and to realize their strengths. I know how much fear there can be when we think about our children having to struggle financially, socially, romantically, intellectually, emotionally, or physically.
I get how difficult it is to understand that just because something is easy or simple for us, that it may not be simple or easy for others, that when we have a talent, a skill, or an ease with something, that it’s often taken for granted.
I feel the agony of reconciling our own limitations and impasses with various structures and institutions. I know how helpless that can make us feel, and for that reason, I empathize with those who turn to narratives of individual agency and effort as the means to success. To deal of structural oppression and constraint is agonizing at its worst, and uncomfortable at best, when it forces us to talk about things like privilege.
I see how notions of failure and success play into the pursuit of meaning in our lives, how we associate our accomplishments with blessings and proof of how special we are, how we might live on in the memories of others, how fame and recognition are profoundly linked to self-worth and identity. I see how the concept of failure can make people feel abandoned by their god, by their community, by their partners, by their families, and how it can make people feel invisible, small, and meaningless.
Despite the complexity of failure and success as concepts and as lived experiences, I do believe that there are ways of mitigating the impact that they have on our lives.
We can stop using the word “failure,” or, at the very least, make an effort to find alternative words to describe our experiences. We can remember, as trite as it may sound, that having taken the risk to apply for that scholarship or that job, to go on that date, or to enter that sporting event takes a hell of a lot of courage and vulnerability. We can understand that, as opposed to the wisdom of internet memes and bullshit gurus like Tony Robbins, that failure and success are not polar opposites, but part of the same process of discovery and knowledge formation. We can talk, instead, about setbacks. Moments of frustration. Queries, questions, puzzles, mysteries.
We can start to enjoy things for enjoyment alone, rather than as part of a culture of competition. We can pursue education for the love of learning, sports and dance for the love of movement, relationships for the purpose of connection, jobs for the purpose of fulfillment and engagement with others, fitness for the purpose of health. We can find pleasure in process, not in an end result.
We can learn techniques and strategies to mitigate the experience of criticism or critique. For instance, as a teacher, I rarely if ever mark in red pen. Some might tell me that not marking in red pen plays into the culture of “well, we can’t hurt their precious feelings,” but if you honestly believe that red does not have practical, oft-reinforced associations with fear or hesitancy, you might check your own heart rate when the light suddenly turns from amber to red. I mark in purple – it’s just as easy for me to do. I also use a marking style that is conversational, and that expresses my experience as a reader. I make notes about what the “essay” does, not about what the “student” does. I try to remember, as Dr. Janet Giltrow suggests, that for many of my students, this work is new for them, and that learning is a process.
We can remember that our own attitudes about failure and success necessarily impact those around us. When we say that we’re failures, that we’re pieces of shit because we left a PhD program or because we had a relationship that broke up, that has an effect on our loved ones, especially when we say “well, no, YOU’RE not a failure for leaving your program or not being married yet, it’s just totally DIFFERENT for me.”
We can take ownership of our decisions without labeling them as good or bad. We can decide that a school or a job wasn’t the right fit for us, and that it was healthy for us to leave, even if a colleague or a friend decides to stay. We can acknowledge that we all have different limits, abilities, tolerances, desires, and goals, and that we make different choices as a result.
We can start talking about privilege. We can talk about all the things we don’t want to talk about, like how the majority of the people who talk about success and failure have the financial privilege and the cultural capital to be able to do so, and how they rarely if ever talk about social injustice, inequity, oppression, and its relationship to things like neoliberalism and capitalism.
This is REALLY hard work. It’s as hard to examine the language and attitudes about failure and success from as it is to examine any other set of thoughts and beliefs. It’s difficult to balance our needs and desires to learn from our setbacks, and to take credit for things that we’ve done well. It’s painful to embrace our limitations and to fight back against oppression. I don’t have all the answers. I’m still working through all of this myself. What I do know is this: instead condemning those who criticize failure, instead of praising those who value success above all, let’s listen to the stories that shaped those attitudes and beliefs. There may be a lot more behind the red ink and the green envy than we think, and it’s only by going into those uncomfortable spaces that we even approach the possibility of equity and opportunity, support and understanding.