Famed American inventor and engineer Charles F. Kettering said,
“It is not a disgrace to fail…Learn how to fail intelligently, for failing is one of the great arts in the world.”
I like the idea that failure can be viewed positively. After all, failure is unavoidable in life. Everyone we know has failed. We don’t have the choice not to fail. Failure is a part of what it means to be human.
So the issue is: how do I fail? How do I make an art of failure? What does it mean to “fail intelligently”?
Here’s one thought:
To fail unintelligently is to think that my failures disqualify me. It is to think: “Because I have failed, I am a failure.”
(When this kind of thinking tries to sneak in the back door of my brain, I like to remind myself—gently—“Geoffery, if you don’t mind, that’s kind of a dumb way to fail. You need to fail smarter.”)
To fail intelligently is to realize that my failures actually qualify me.
For example, in long-term relationships, it’s not failure to say, “I was wrong.” That actually qualifies us for relationship. It makes us more human, not less.
In his book Why Teach?, Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia, tells about a time he was introduced to speak. The one introducing him listed his accomplishments, degrees, books published, etc.
Edmundson stood up and said that he appreciated the introduction, but that every time he hears his resume described like that, he thinks of his “ghost resume”: the mistakes he’s made, the books he never finished, the bad ideas, etc.
Without the “ghost resume”, he said, the resume of accomplishments would not have been possible.
That’s a more intelligent way to fail. It turns failure into an art.