Giving Failure a Chance

The TV comedy show “Arrested Development,” a treasure trove of inside jokes and obscure references shared among true fans—for example, “There’s always money in a banana stand”—is also layered with the kind of humor that pokes fun at the humanness of human beings, pitting those of us who color inside the lines against those who color outside of them. There is no clichéd good versus evil narrative, however; there are only characters who try to be good and characters who try not to be bad, and together they inevitably create family drama. This dynamic is typified in a scene where Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) says to his son, George Michael (Michael Cera), “It’s time for us to start having some fun.” George Michael, quoting the motivational poster that hangs nearby responds, “I don’t know…‘Fun and Failure: Both start out the same way.’ ”

I always laugh when I think about this quote. The implication, of course, is that it’s better to avoid fun lest the desire for having a good time lead to failure, crushing one’s hopes and dreams forever. I’ve come to accept the fact that I frequently hold myself to standards that I can’t possibly live up to, and appreciate the comical reminder of how ridiculous it is to take oneself too seriously. Failing does not determine whether or not we are decent human beings, nor does it dictate what we’re capable of achieving. And yet just the fear of failure can be debilitating.

When I find myself defaulting to a “play it safe” mentality, I think about Steve Jobs. He is commonly remembered as the face of Apple, an entrepreneurial/marketing/tech genius, and yet his public failures are an important part of the larger story that marked an extremely successful career. During a commencement speech in 2005, he spoke about his experience of being forced to resign from the company he helped found:

“I was a very public failure, and I even thought about running away from the valley. But something slowly began to dawn on me — I still loved what I did. The turn of events at Apple had not changed that one bit. I had been rejected, but I was still in love. And so I decided to start over.

“I didn't see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.”

“Fun” might not be the best word to describe this situation; however, Jobs’ point is important. Creative thinking and creative development are not bound by conventional standards of measurement. Rather than limit us, the idea that failure could lead to something unexpected, something better, should free us from the fear of falling short. How else do we test our strength? There is no incentive to be brave, to create, to think outside the proverbial box and do what we love if we cannot also learn the significance of trying again. And again.

I’ve come into contact with many students over the past few years who, like me, are determined to color inside the lines. Admittedly, such attention to detail is rewarded in my classes. Part of what keeps the creative process fun, however, is the messiness involved. So I’m challenging myself to think differently, and to consider how I might encourage students to take more risks, giving them time and opportunity to completely fail yet still end the semester with a strong, creative body of work.

It might be true that “Fun and Failure: Both start out the same way,” but perhaps that isn’t such a bad thing after all.