Friday, September 28, 2007

Opportunity to Fail

Back when I was in college, and doing preparation for a play I was involved in (although not as an actor), I remember my drama professor telling me not to "prepare for failure," by which he meant that I might unwittingly cause a problem by wasting time thinking too much about it. He did not intend to convey that I shouldn't be prepared for potential problems. Only that I should direct my energies in the most productive means possible, and to encourage others working on the project to do the same.

But it's one thing to avoid causing problems, and another to be prepared for them, and the distinction between the two isn't always easy to see. So when trying to avoid failure, it can become easy to avoid risk, and risk-aversive people often never achieve great success, either. And that can be a real tragedy.

I was reminded of the need to be able to risk while listening to report on NPR the other day. The John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has awarded a series of "Genius Grants" to a couple of dozen people who do various kinds of work in research, art, and other forms of achievement. Four of these recipients were interviewed for this report. After interviewing the first of these, a scientist who studies the intricacies of spiders' webs, the commentator mentioned she could do "riskier research" because the grant afforded her "the ability to fail."

Of course, none of the recipients of these funds is a stranger to risk in the first place. The only way people get recognized for such honors in the first place is by achieving great things in their fields. One wonders what hardships they had to endure, and what failures they had to face, before anyone ever noticed or cared about their talents. What was their "failure tolerance" early on? That is to say, were they in a position to be able to pick up and start again if their earliest efforts failed, or did they need to build up to their first major failure, accumulating resources (either monetarily or personally) that enabled them to withstand failure when it came?

These may sound like meaningless questions, but I think it's worth remembering that many people can't recover from some types of failures, even if a person in a different position, with different resources, might have been able to withstand the same circumstances. I think that's why programs like the "Genius Grants" exist. By giving people with proven potential a greater opportunity to fail, they give them a greater opportunity for success.

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