Yes, You Can Learn a Lot from Failing—If It Doesn’t Break You

By Jack Limpert

Megan McArdle’s new book, The Up Side of Down, is a good look at failure and how it can hurt you or help you. As part of the book launch, she wrote a piece, Why Writers Are the Worst Procrastinators, for the Atlantic. Here’s her thesis: Writers are procrastinators because they were too good in English class, easily got A’s, and learned the wrong lesson: that success depends on natural talent, not hard work.

That thesis bounces off another good book, Mindset, by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck.  Mindset was published in 2006 and that summer, while sitting with Tim Wilson at a Nats-Phillies baseball game, we got talking about how kids succeed. Tim is a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, the author of two good books, and he highly recommended Mindset. I passed the suggestion on to my daughter, Jeannie. She had just finished two years of teaching at a mostly Latino elementary school in Houston and was about to start medical school to become a pediatrician. She said Mindset completely changed how she looked at success and failure.

My life in journalism started in 1960 after what I then saw as almost 10 years of failure. I had graduated at the top of my high school class, gone to the University of Wisconsin to become a chemical engineer, and flunked out. I then joined the Air Force, did well in navigation school,  and saw my flying future grounded by a medical problem I returned to college and unsuccessfully majored in business administration, philosophy, psychology, and a year of law school. I felt mired in failure, not understanding that failure sometimes is the result of bad luck and that deciding not to become an accountant or lawyer may have been wisdom, not failure. But it’s hard to see clearly when your life seems a succession of failures.

I was lucky enough to find a job with United Press International news service and have always thought a couple of years of wire service work is a good way to learn to be a journalist. For the first six months, I rewrote news stories for the radio-television wire. Looking back, I think that was worth more than a year at any journalism school and I got paid $72 a week to do it. And it was good therapy for a feeling of failure. Just sit down and write as fast as you can for eight hours a day and see what you can learn from it.

Watching daughter Jeannie play sports in school, including four years on the Amherst College golf team (If you get into trouble, get out as quickly as possible), was a reminder of what sports can teach a kid about failure. Athletes know that you often learn more from losing than from winning. What do I have to do to get better? Learn from your mistakes. Practice and get better. Teamwork is important.

When I was in high school in the 1950s, the girls who were good athletes could try out to become cheerleaders for the boys’ teams—there were no girls’ teams or boy cheerleaders. The passage of Title IX in 1972 changed everything for women in sports and in life. It let young women learn the lessons of resiliency, of learning from losing, of coming back and winning. If you made a list of the  10 best things Washington has done in the last 50 years, Title IX should be near the top.

Here’s another way to look at failure: Phil Merrill, publisher of The Washingtonian magazine from 1979 until his death in 2006, was extraordinarily smart and successful. He told me he liked to hire people who knew what it was like to fail. He didn’t trust people who had skated along with no falls—too much overconfidence, too much hubris, not enough respect for finding out what you don’t know. (See also David Halberstam’s brilliant book, The Best and the Brightest.)

It’s all pretty much the same message as McArdle’s book and her Atlantic piece about writers: Natural talent helps, but good writing is mostly about the struggle, about confronting  your insecurities, about doing it and then doing it better and finally doing it well.

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