Let’s talk about failure

Not always at the top of the conversation list, it’s something that happens to all of us. This week, i stumbled and fell – a little unexpectedly – and my reaction was also a bit unexpected.

i am required to complete a 13 month professional development course. It has been required for several years, but most of us played the waiting game – hoping the requirement would vaporize with changes in the front office. But alas, we could wait no longer as strong arm tactics were deployed. Small children would be maimed, puppies would be stomped and (shudder) blackberries demolished if we failed to comply.

Completion involves three courses, plus a research article.  Computer-based testing is done in a communal center.  Options for the course are either independent study or through a “seminar” – equally miserable conscripts become study-mates for weekly sessions, providing a bit more tension in the system to finish the damn thing.

With my tendency to procrastinate, i knew i had to join a seminar group – and fortunately, joined a good one. Fearless Leader, a friend and colleague, devised a scheme where we could push aggressively and complete the entire thing in about 9 months – before Thanksgiving.  Notebooks and highlighters in hand, noses plugged, upper lips stiffened – off we charged!

Pounding our way through the first course over the past five weeks, it was time for our first test. The tests are notoriously squishy – multiple choice questions where you can narrow it down to two reasonable answers, but ultimately have to take your best guess. I’ve always tested well*, have good verbal skills, and felt i was prepared, having devoted an assload of time to my studies.

You guessed it – i only knew about 14 answers of 25 for sure, leaving 11 “educated guesses”. Reviewing my answers, i changed about 5 of them from my initial gut response.

And i failed. Scoring a 68%, with 70% required for passing.  i will have one more try before being ejected from the program.**

Leaving the test center – a room with about 30 computers, still full of people furiously clicking through their own circles of examination hell – i escaped quietly, snagged my test results from the printer and slunk toward the door. The administrator at the center kindly told me that many people fail the tests on the first try.  Kind of her to say so…

Collecting my thoughts for a moment in the car, i immediately decided that i would lie.  How could i tell my seminar-mates that i’d failed?  One of our colleagues had taken the test earlier.  He’d gotten an 84%.  So i knew it was possible to pass the test – i couldn’t admit to being a failure. 

Driving back to my office, i pondered the idea of lying, quietly re-taking the test… and i realized that i couldn’t cover this up.  Public humiliation was in my future.  i was going to have to suck it up. 

Sitting through the morning meeting, my thoughts wandered.  Going back to the day The Girl failed the maneuverability portion of her drivers test, she was inconsolable.  i remember her saying “Mom, i’ve never failed at anything i’ve tried to do before!”… and those words resonated with me. 

Similar feelings for me that morning.  Not that i’m a genius, but i’ve been pretty good at sorting out just the right level of effort required to get me from Point A to Point B.  i am simply not used to fucking something up, and it felt awful.

Then i remembered the words i laid upon her.  Words from my Dad.  “The measure of a man isn’t how he deals with success – it’s how he deals with failure.  Anyone can deal with success.  Failure tells you who he really is.” 

Back in the office, i tracked down Fearless Leader to tell him i’d failed.  He was genuinely shocked, but then said “I just saw K, and he failed it too”.  What?  K?  He’s a certified fucking genius!  Fearless Leader said he was pretty shaken up.  Racing upstairs to catch him in his office, i realized he must be in the same kind of hell.  i sat down and said those magic words – “i failed”.

Tangible waves of relief flooded through both of us.  Like me, he was in shock.  Unlike me – having a higher degree of integrity – he never considered lying.  This is a man who got 100% on the Graduate Record Exam.  Man, did i feel better… 

So we’ll regroup, review, re-test and get it behind us.  But a powerful lesson in the value of talking about failure.  We also sent a note to another seminar-mate who is scheduled to test next week – call sign is “KDCM”, for “Knuckle Dragging Caveman”*** – to let him know we fucked up and recommend that he trust his instincts. 

Whether it’s professional or personal, understanding, exploring and learning from our failures is a worthwhile excursion.  What’s a little public humiliation among friends?


* In high school, i took the pre-Scholastic Aptitude Test with a massive hangover after 4 hours sleep, and still scored well enough to be a national merit scholar. i’m simply adept with a scantron form… it’s all about the patterns.

** In theory, this would be a good thing.  In practice, it could lead to professional pain and suffering.  Rumors about of people who are being squeezed due to failure to enroll/complete the training…

*** KDCM is responsible for sending me to the emergency room a few years ago – i was detailed to a supervisory position, and he was detailed to the position above me.  And during our week-long personnel evaluation session, my efforts to refrain from beating him to death with a laptop caused my heart to misfire.  He is dumber than a box of hair.  Working for a caveman?  Not nearly as much fun as those Geico commercials might imply…  Worst case scenario?  He passes with a 90% on the first try…

20 thoughts on “Let’s talk about failure

  1. “detailed to the position above me” – once again I will pass on the easy shot out of the park.

    Years ago, when I was still a strapping young buck I was taking my paramedic national registry exam with about twenty of my classmates. We received our instructions and were advised we could start – the first question read “Esophageal Obturator Airway:” (that was it three fucking words) then there were four choices that were indications/contrindications of when to use or not use the device labeled A thru D. Then the answers we could select from: 1) A & B, 2) A, B, & C 3) All of the above 4) D.

    There was a collective twenty person strong “FUCK” exhaled as we finished reading the question almost in unision. That was one down, two hundred and forty nine to go!

  2. Failure is both the preventative and the cure for smugness and complacency. It doesn’t work for people born to wealthy and powerful families, since they never have to deal with the consequences of failing. G. W. Bush comes immediately to mind as an example.

    Failure ramps up our learning curve.

  3. That is a pretty high old pass mark to have to reach. Last time I did exams was at university, and there a 70% score earned you a first class honours degree. (I got an upper second, which means I scored between 60 – 69% overall, and I considered that a bloody good result!)

  4. umdalum – appreciate your restraint. that particular thought regarding KDCM? i’d rather eat broken glass. and that test sounds like it was about 225 questions worse than mine!

    toby – funny how W has never failed at anything. even though for most mortals, most of his alleged professional career would be considered one fuck up piled upon another…

    cat – funny how the expectations are different! 70% is considered dead average (“C”) in the US. getting ‘upper second’ honours would be equivalent to “cum laude” (vs a “magna cum laude” for “first honours”).

  5. are you kidding?! W’s life has been one failure after another. Dodged the Viet Nam war by enlisting in the Air National Guard, then completely fucked that off by going AWOL. Daddy, then director of the CIA, patched that up for him. Later on, when given a football team, his mismanagement pretty much ruined the team. Then Daddy gave him an oil company, which W fucked off in very short order. I could go on, but isn’t that enougn?

  6. Whew! Makes me glad that all of my company’s “training” is internet based and I can re-submit the post tests until I get them all right. I wonder, though, if the people writing the material can keep a straight face when they write “This module will take you about 60 minutes to complete.” Yeah, right. Who’s got that kind of time. Straight to the post test for me. Print out the answer sheet showing which ones are wrong, correct ’em and re-submit.

    Mind you, my company jumped on the “Six Sigma” bandwagon back in ’99 or ’00. I have thus far avoided certifying as a “green belt” or a “black belt” hoping that flavour of the month would die but, so far, no such luck. *Sigh* I guess I may have to do it. Seems that promotions in my job family are tied to having this silly certification.

    Good luck to you on re-taking the test. Just remember though, “In a million years, none of this will matter.”

  7. “my efforts to refrain from beating him to death with a laptop caused my heart to misfire”

    What??? Not sure that any job is worth that kind of stress.

    But good luck on the re-take. And although you briefly considered lying the important thing is that you didn’t act on this passing thought. After all, we all get thoughts we aren’t particularly proud of from time to time. It’s what we do about them that counts.

  8. Ik. This is precisely why I refuse to go further in life. I’m quite happy with my most recent list of failures, thank you very much. Pffft.

  9. lksn – thanks. there was some breaking news this afternoon. the test was re-scored, i got credit for one of the squishy questions, and in the end, passed with a 72%. i feel awful for my colleague, who still needed one more ‘squish’… so no re-take for me. but i’ve offered to study with K… survivors guilt, i suppose.

    unknown blogger – Welcome to The Park! we get lots of those sorts of ‘training’ opportunities as well. and i’m generally a ‘right to the test’ person. one series gives us 99 chances to pass a 10 question test. it would be silly to read through the material…

    az – the stress wasn’t worth it. although whacking KDCM in the head with a laptop might have been worth the disciplinary action.

    kyknoord – snatching defeat from the jaws of victory is a gift…

    dolceii – i didn’t review one lesson over the weekend. fucked off like a champ, i went to a dance party, did a long bike ride, played basketball with my kids, filed taxes and didn’t give the course a second thought. i was fully prepared to be ejected from the program if need be…

    uncle keith – you know the bureaucracy in which i live. and i feel your pain. i said “pain”…. easy there, big fella…

  10. * In high school, i took the pre-Scholastic Aptitude Test with a massive hangover after 4 hours sleep, and still scored well enough to be a national merit scholar.

    That is PRECISELY how I took the PSAT with the same result. Perhaps we should patent the system and start selling.

  11. lksn – mostly relieved that i didn’t waste a weekend worrying about it. sometimes it pays to be the grasshopper rather than the ant!

    imeantno – wow. all these years we’ve been hanging out and i didn’t realize we shared such a dirty, dirty secret! we should start writing the “drink your way to scholarship” self help book…

  12. Pingback: Dealing with failure* « Trailer Park Refugee

  13. Pingback: Test Anxiety « Trailer Park Refugee

  14. sometimes when you fail you feel like you are the only one only to find at the end that you are not the only one.and we should get used to the fact that your failures are a stepping stone to success.

  15. ntomby – welcome to the park! thank you for commenting… the entire process, in retrospect, was more growth than actual book learning. something good to be extracted from something that was dead awful from conscription to completion…

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