FAILURE Week is now over. I sure hope you celebrated as I did, by burning meals, getting parking tickets, and neglecting to prepare your sweetheart for a disappointing Valentine’s Day.
I was delighted to discover that a top British girls’ high school called Wimbledon had initiated a Failure Week in order to show students how to “embrace risk, build resilience and learn from their mistakes,” according to BBC News. This was my kind of celebration! The adults in these performance-oriented girls’ lives planned to share their own tales of failure, encouraging the young women to recognize that screw-ups are perfectly normal.
I don’t know why, or how, any teenaged girl would be unaware of this, much less an English teenaged girl. The British press in particular loves nothing better than aiming its laser beam at a flop, so if these young ladies have done any reading at all, they’re aware that the Beckhams’ marriage, for instance, has had as many ups and downs as both spouses’ hemlines. Of all the ego-pricking cultures extant, Britain’s White Anglo-Saxon Protestants’ is the most acute. This group’s fashion choices may be dubious and its Bakewell Tarts horrific, but its members never miss a chance to point out your shortcomings. I’ve seen enough episodes of Doc Martin and read enough books by P.D. James to know that -- actual residency is not required.
As a result, when I think of Failure Week at Wimbledon High, I picture a girl dashing down a hallway, almost late for class. All long legs and ugly shoes, she gets deliberately tripped by the gym teacher, then told with a yellowing smile, “We can’t all be graceful, Charmaine.”
And so we can’t, and the sooner these students understand that failure will be a persistent theme in their lives, the better. Girls quickly learn from women’s magazines that they will always fall short in their efforts to be their ideal weight and fitness level, perfectly stylish, high achievers, accomplished cooks, terrific friends, and sexy wives and beloved mummies, in that order. They might as well embrace failure at 13 and get on with it.
“What lessons can we all learn from failure?” asks Wimbledon’s school newsletter online. I wonder what mark you get if you fail to learn anything from Failure Week -- but, lazy lummox that I am, I don’t wonder too long.
Luckily, the Wimbledon girls won’t just have to listen to elders they know. What could be more tedious than pretending to be riveted as one tutor after another confesses, cheeks ablaze, that she once confused the word “palindrome” with “paladin,” or drank too many shandies to graduate from Oxford? Never fear, actual celebrities will appear on video to discourage the girls from beating themselves up over their gaffes. They’ll talk about opportunities that they themselves have blown.
I can see it now, Gwyneth Paltrow nasally gushing about the time she burst into tears because she missed a bus, and how ironic it is that she now travels by chauffeured Bentley. Hugh Grant will confess, “I was absolute bollocks at sums but now I have four good, strikingly well-dressed fellows who do my addition for me full-time.” Bono will admit with a grin that he once foolishly wore platform shoes for heightening purposes, not just because he liked the look of them.
The other day Daniel Radcliffe, the guy who played Harry Potter in the film series, told some news reporter that he used to show up hung-over on set. Maybe he’ll be in Wimbledon High’s Loser Line-up, too, but then, that might give the girls unsavoury ideas. It’s better form to fail on your own, without the assistance of alcohol or other performance inhibitors.
I do have to wonder how the school will proceed after it officially throws its support behind failing. Surely the most blithe underperformers will still get called into the headmistress’s office. Maybe she’ll quote the 1960 movie Please Don’t Eat the Daisies: “There are interesting failures. There are prestige failures, and there are financial failures, but this is the sort of failure that gives failures a bad name.”
In 2005, London Business School evolutionary psychologist Nigel Nicholson was quoted in a BBC article called The art of failure. He recommended one trick practiced by Wall Street traders whose false steps can have massive repercussions. The idea is to “separate your identity from your performance.” That’s a grand scheme, I think, as long as you also separate your identity from your performance when you excel. Otherwise, the ruse is transparently self-serving. And if your identity has nothing to do with how you perform as a worker, a leader, a sportsperson, an artist, a friend, a mate or a parent, then where do you form your identity in the first place?
Nicholson believes the value of failure is that you learn the lesson that you did the wrong thing. I prefer to endorse the view of comedy writer Robert Orben. “Don’t think of it as failure. Think of it as time-released success.”