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"You Will Fail"
Thought for the Fortnight
“You will fail”, the Professor told a lecture room full of roughly 500 undergraduates in his last lecture of the season. Shocking to hear. But wait, I thought to myself, he is an excellent and thoughtful teacher – did he really mean to say that?
And then he continued: “It’s not failure that you want to avoid – what you want is resilience from failure, you want to learn from any failure.”
Ah yes, what excellent advice for those on the threshold of adult life. I wish someone had told me that.
And it didn’t stop there. For the final twenty minutes of the lecture, the Professor addressed matters completely outside the topic of the course, but compelling to the students. “I am talking about you”, he said pointing to one. “And you.” And you.”
It proved to be a very considered exercise in self-examination. What was their outlook on the future? Were they hopeful or anxious? Each student pushed a button and the collective answers appeared on a bar chart on the board in front of the class. Completely anonymised, of course.
He went on. How would they describe themselves? Flexible and resilient? Reasonably steady and able to bounce back from setbacks? Or very hard on themselves, so that any form of failure really hurt?
He stressed the importance of knowing themselves, when reflecting on what they really wanted to do. He quoted Mary Oliver, a poet: “Tell me, what is it that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
And paused to give them time to think.
Noting that they would not have made it to the university if they weren’t already good at certain things – mastering information, jumping through hoops, getting appraisals – he emphasised that they would now need much more.
They would need to create their own hoops and find their own sources of appraisal. Especially when people move up any hierarchy, it is hard to get useful, honest feedback.
He continued with more questions. What kinds of work were they good at? Analysing information? Negotiating? Advocating? Organising? Inspiring? Good questions.
And, as night follows day, what were they worst at? Respecting authority? Getting things done on time? Being patient with other people? Being patient with themselves? Staying calm? All matters we need to understand about ourselves.
And then the real killer: “What”, he asked, “is your ‘personality drug’?” This is something that you love so much that you can’t get enough of it, he explained. But it also can trip you up, because it can lead you to make bad judgements. Some examples included wanting to be in control, wanting to be the smartest person in the room, wanting to be loved, wanting to be perfect. And there are many others.
No, I never heard of the term either, but it is a good one. People don’t easily rid themselves of this quality, he said, but they should be alert to situations where it might cause poor decisions.
Finally, how would they like to look back on their lives when they were old? To have been famous? Or to have made the world a better place? Or had wonderful family and friends?
“Self knowledge is a quest,” he summarised, “You will be on it for many, many years.”
My immediate reaction was “Wow”. Do these students realise how lucky they are? To be confronted with so many ideas about how to look at themselves so early in their lives. To be given permission to fail.
No one, in all my life, told me that I could expect to fail and that I might learn from the experience. On the contrary, from my parents and my various school and university teachers, I learned only that the aim – nay, the plan – was to succeed. Failure was not an option.
Of course, I did experience failure early on, as I have written recently, not to mention throughout my life at various points. But no one told me it was OK. That it should be seen as a way of learning. If only.
And no one ever laid out all these deeper questions at any time – and certainly not early on. I am a reflective person and have considered my strengths and weaknesses off and on throughout my life.
But that additional nudge at that age would have been beyond helpful.
What would I add?
I also pondered how I would have done it differently, if I had ever taught a university course and thought of the idea (I haven’t and probably wouldn’t).
I would have wanted to reassure my students that they don’t need to know all these things right away – indeed, they cannot know some of them because they haven’t had enough experience.
It is impossible to know if you like negotiating if you have never negotiated – and it might be years before the opportunity would arise. You cannot even know how resilient you are until you experience a failure.
And even when you think you know what you do well or badly, these can change as you gain in confidence. And it takes years to learn your comparative strengths – you might be good at negotiating but are you really a star in this activity?
I fully concur that self-knowledge is a long term quest.
At 81, I am still learning.
And who was giving the lecture?
I must, of course, give credit where it is due. It was fellow Substacker (and much, much else) Robert Reich (robertreich.substack.com), giving a series of lectures on “Wealth and Poverty” at the University of California, Berkeley.
These lectures have been made available to anyone interested via his Substack and are well worth listening to. They can also be found on YouTube.
After writing this post, I discovered that Robert Reich had himself written a post on the same subject.