A city public school half a mile from my house sports a large banner: Failure is not an option. When I snort as we drive by, my wife chides me for my negativity. But really. Who among us has not known failure and does not know that its potential is always present? 

During the year I was unemployed, white, male, middle-aged, overeducated, and previously overpaid, I knew that the the possibility of failure in landing a new job was ever present. And if I hadn't, a multitude of potential employers reminded me. That's just one instance, and I don't intend to parade my other failures before you. But you can pause here for a minute to catalogue your own. 


I know the city school system means well and wants to encourage the students, though I hope they haven't wasted taxpayer funds on those godawful Successories motivational posters.* But I suspect that many students have already experienced failures and know that further failure probably lies ahead. Moreover, they walk into the school and a big poster on which the first word is Failure looms over their heads. If you want to take failure out of the equation, stop mentioning the word. 

And even though the message is intended to be comforting, I hear a minatory tone in it. After all, "failure is not an option" was the message Hitler sent in promoting General Paulus to field marshal just before the Wehrmacht's Sixth Army collapsed outside Stalingrad.** 

I tell my editing students at the outset that it is possible to do badly. I tell them that I expect them to make heavy weather of the early exercises on grammar and usage because they have probably been inadequately instructed. I tell them that editing is a hard craft to learn and they will have to work hard even to make a beginning at it. 

But I also tell them that I can show them how it's done. I can answer their questions. I can go over their work with them. And even if fourteen weeks is not enough time to become fully proficient, if they pay attention and work at the craft, they will end better than they started, better at their own writing, too. 

Telling them that they can't fail is dishonest; telling them that we won't let them fail is foolhardy. What you want is something like Samuel Beckett's advice in Worstword Ho: "Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

What they need to hear is that when they fail, that will not have to define them. 


 

 

*I think that upstairs in Advertising and Circulation there are people who respond to bromides and that rah-rah stuff, but you might want to keep it mind that it doesn't work with everybody. I, for one, find Despair.com's posters resonant

 

**The Fuehrer's thinking, you may recall, was that no German field marshal had ever surrendered; ergo ...