Failure Friday: More on the Irony of Optimism

Do you remember the Monty Python sketch about the “argument clinic?” The Pythons always had a bit of a punch-line challenge and they liked to end a sketch by throwing in something random like, in this case, having Michael Palin walk into a room where Terry Jones is offering “getting hit on the head lessons.”

So yesterday I was browsing the archives of a blog called The Golden Echo, and I came across a post tagged “Failure Friday.” As I have an interest in failure, I thought I would like to steal, er, offer an homage to the Failure Friday tag. I wondered, however, if I could come up with enough failure material for a recurring feature.

Fate intervened, for today I was reading Stat (of course I read medical blogs) and I stumbled upon an article by Sara Whitlock with the title “One Reason Young People Don’t Go Into Science? We Don’t Fail Well.” Whitlock’s thesis is that repeated failure is “the fundamental underpinning of scientific resilience.”

(It is, undoubtedly, the fundamental underpinning of resilience in the arts as well. By the time anyone is making a career as an artist, dancer, musician, actor or writer he has gone through more than his fair share of rejection and failure.)

Westerners in general, and Americans particularly, face a lot of social pressure to be above average. We’re consumers of books on “success,” and we are judgmental of those who do not achieve it. Success means standing out, showing a talent that you have above and beyond others. Talent is thought to be innate, part of an individual’s makeup.

A number of studies have found that Asian cultures take a different approach. For example a 2001 study had Canadian and Japanese students take a so-called creativity test. It did not test anything, but the experimenters gave the subjects feedback on how well they had performed then they watched their reactions. When they were told they were successful, Canadians worked longer. With the Japanese it was completely the opposite. They worked harder if they failed.

One big East/West divide, according to Richard Nisbett, author of The Geography of Thought, is that Westerners are focused on building and shoring up our individual identities. In the East it is different:

Some linguistic facts illustrate the social-psychological gap between East and West. In Chinese there is no word for “individualism.” The closest one can come is the word for “selfishness.” The Chinese character jên— benevolence— means two men. In Japanese, the word “I”— meaning the trans-situational, unconditional, generalized self with all its attributes, goals, abilities, and preferences— is not often used in conversation. Instead, Japanese has many words for “I,” depending on audience and context.

We believe each person has a consistent self that remains stable regardless of the context. This self can be either “creative” or “not so creative.” The Canadian therefore takes the feedback on the creativity test as information on how creative a person he is. If it turns out he is not “creative” he will want to move on to what he is good at, leave creativity to “creatives,” and try to develop his core competency. The Japanese subjects do not take the test as a measure of their inherent qualities, rather as a challenge at which they can improve.

Nisbett concluded, “Westerners are likely to get very good at a few things they start out doing well to begin with. Easterners seem more likely to become Jacks and Jills of all trades.”

We might try science, but if we don’t stand out fairly quickly we move on to try to find out where we do excel. This makes us less resilient in the face of failure. Whitlock cites a 2011 study that examined resiliency in disadvantaged students in a number of countries and concluded that non-US students were more resilient than we are. Is there a moral to this story?

Maybe we need to sign up for more getting hit on the head lessons.





Yesterday, I wrote about Failure Lab, an event coming to the Detroit Opera House on November 21.  I discovered the event through a tweet by Focus: Hope, which I retweeted. Focus:Hope asked if I would be attending and I replied that I would love to, but don’t think I can afford it right now.

This morning a success coach tweeted me.  “…please don’t be offended but I cringe at ds ‘can’t afford’. Try it is not in my budget right nowBetter message 4U!”

So I have been thinking about the subtle difference between these two statements.

Imagine a scenario in which you go into a store and ask how much it is for a candy bar. The clerk says “$1.” You rifle through your pockets and come up with only 50c.  Doesn’t it seem woefully euphemistic to say “It’s not in my budget right now” rather than, “Sorry, I haven’t got that much.”?

The coach did not say why “it’s not in my budget” is better 4 me.  It was a tweet, after all.  So let me try to parse it.

My first reaction was that it implied that it would be shameful to admit you did not have enough money.  Instead, you imply that you have enough, you are just not making that a priority in your budget.

I won’t go into all of the reasons again why I think concealing poverty is unhelpful and leads to a cycle of shame.  (I wrote a whole book on the subject, after all.)  There is another aspect to this that I find more interesting.

Indeed, the success coach is right, studies have shown that a key to happiness is a sense of having control of your life and your environment.  Perhaps you can achieve that, at least temporarily, through thinking of yourself as being able to do things but not prioritizing them. “I could if I wanted to, but I chose not to.”

You can carry this further by saying, “I could be making more money, but I have prioritized living in the area where I grew up” or “spending more time with my children” or whatever it is. So everything is still your choice that you do not have a lot of money. You feel you have agency. You feel more content. So if you make it a habit of framing things in a way that gives you agency (even if it is something of an illusion) you feel better about yourself.  This was, in fact, a point I made in my book. Don’t think of yourself as a loser, think of yourself as an artist of life who has prioritized the non-financial.

If you think of my message to the organizers as being only about myself then it makes sense that it would be better for my self-esteem to word the message as the success coach suggests.  My tweet, however, was not primarily about conveying information about me, it was about a relationship between myself and the people who came up with this creative project.  Communicating with other people is not only about self-esteem, it is also about other-esteem.

If I want to express how much I love the idea of what Failure Lab is doing, is it better to say that I would love to go if I had enough money or to imply that I do have enough but that their show is not enough of a priority for me to budget for it?