Every school has its own unique culture, and one of the hallmarks of UCC is the relentless pursuit of and celebration of success. I first learned about the latter — what I like to think of as our flair for self-celebration — during the fall of my first year, when a boy came into my office early one Monday morning to tell me about an academic prize he had won the previous weekend. I, of course, congratulated him on his accomplishment, but I could tell right away that he was disappointed with my response.
Sensing that I didn’t quite understand his real purpose, the boy pointed to the plaque he was holding, a plaque, which had his name prominently displayed on it and said, “I’d like you to present this award to me.” I thought this was a strange request, but I was new to the country and thought that perhaps this was a Canadian thing. So with what I hoped was an appropriately elevated degree of decorum, I took the plaque and was in the process or returning it to him when he said, “No, what I mean is, I’d like you to present this plaque to me during this morning’s assembly.”
I was dumbfounded, but again, I was a stranger in a strange land. (By the way, I would soon learn that the celebration of self is not so much a Canadian as it is a UCC “thing.”) An hour later, I called the boy up to the stage here in Laidlaw Hall and presented him with his prize. The students all applauded. Some even yelled, “Hoist!” and the boy in question seemed quite pleased by the whole thing.
Sometimes in a culture like ours, a culture where success is pursued and recognized at almost all costs, it is tough to cope with or learn from failure. But of course, we will all fail, and rather than fleeing from or denying this reality, we need to see that failure is actually a vitally important building block for any meaningful long term success.
As an example, let me tell you a story, taken almost directly from Psychology Today:
Philip Schutz wasn’t able to read until he was 11. By then he’d repeated a year, and he saw himself as a member of the “dummy section.” Today we would understand that Schultz had dyslexia, but nobody knew that at the time. All they knew was that this kid couldn’t read.
(An aside: research suggests that dyslexics are four times more likely to become millionaires than are members of the general population. Remind me to tell you why this is sometime. In the meantime, though, you might want to double clutch before making fun of someone because you think he’s not quite smart enough.)
Back to our friend, Phil. When a teacher asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, Phil said he wanted to be a writer. The teacher laughed out loud. “I wasn’t insulted, “ Schultz recalls. “I understood it was a funny thing to hear from someone who hated to read and couldn’t write a simple English sentence.”
The consequence of Schultz’ being a perceived as a “dummy” was “exile to shameful outsider-dom.” That sense of being an outsider, of not fitting in, is often just the kind of experience from which writers and leaders are made. With “the loneliness of having so little expected of him, and the pain of being overlooked and forgotten,” Schultz had time for careful attention to his interior life. As a result, Schultz spent a great deal of his time in isolation, working towards the one career for which his teachers thought he was most ill-suited, poetry.
Cut to 2007. “A working poet at this point, Schultz had realized that almost everything he wrote about was failure. Failure was his clay. He was especially interested in writing about his dad – a drunkard who’d been a lousy parent and a worse provider. He eventually managed to write a number of very personal poems about his father, and the power that shot through the plainspoken language in this poetry was unlike anything Schultz had produced before. He called the collection, simply ‘Failure.’ On its cover: a bent nail in a board. In 2008 it won the Pulitzer Prize.”
I offer two takeaways this morning:
First, failure is a necessary ingredient in the recipe for greatness. Almost all successful leaders endured terrible setbacks. Failure seems particularly effective, by the way, if it occurs between your late teens and early 30’s, perhaps because if you are resilient (more on that in a second), you have the ability to rebound. Remember that Churchill and Kennedy floundered in school, and Steve Jobs dropped out of college and was later fired by the company he had created.
Remember, too, that J.K. Rowling lived in poverty, raising her young daughter on her own, as she tried to recover from a failed marriage. Despite all of this, she continued to scribble away at her fiction every day at a coffee shop, as she tried to create a character she would one day call Harry Potter. Rowling admits, “Failure stripped away everything inessential. It taught me things about myself I could have learned no other way.”
Second, resiliency is the key to dealing with and learning from failure, but schools, and especially private ones, sometimes undermine your resiliency. We have a tendency to bubble wrap kids from failure, and as a result, we can sometimes appear to be the land of the precious and the brittle. But as one particularly insightful Year 2 boy said recently, to move forward in life, sometimes you have to be able to “drink the pain.”
Today marks the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Week, and one small part of good mental health seems to be the ability to cope with and learn from setbacks. While I am happy for the boy who won that plaque many years ago, I wonder if he — and all of us for that matter – might be better off getting a board with a bent nail. That would surely be something worthy of a “hoist!”