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The Value of Failure

Some research has revealed that man’s two greatest fears are public speaking and death, in that order. This means, of course, that most people at a funeral would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.

Man does his best to overcome these fears. Schools have rhetoric and public speaking courses and teachers require oral reports. Even in progressive education, the need for public speaking is generally acknowledged. After all, some of the best paying jobs require it (like teaching, for example) and it’s all about the job, right?

Mankind labors to develop new surgeries and medications, diet regimens, and elaborate fitness centers, all to produce longer life. All are aware that, at best, the inevitable is only being delayed, but the constant laboring continues. In the end, at least man can seek for a death of dignity, filled with hope and memories. Even those who fear death can hope to die well.

A third fear ranks quite close to the first two – fear of failure. As with the previous two fears, man puts his hand to destroying failure. Schools change or remove grading scales, no one is singled out for praise, scoreless basketball leagues are created, and people are encouraged to regularly blame someone else when they come up short (which cannot be pointed out). Problem solved, right?

The idea of removing the possibility for failure is rooted in a kind of compassion. No one wants to see someone struggle, particularly not their own children. If it can be eliminated, why not do it?

The problem is that, in these particular attempts to eliminate failure, there is another significant casualty – victory. If no one is allowed to fail, who actually wins? Who is successful? Who gets to experience the joy of victory? Well, no one.

Failure is valuable because it causes us to long for success, victory, mastery. To take away failure is to take away striving and, to take away striving, is to doom everyone to mediocrity and even greater failure. On the other hand, to allow for struggle and the possibility of failure is to allow for the greatest joy and celebration in victory.

When the Roman troops of Caecina battled the German troops of Arminius, they were in some of the worst possible conditions. The land was marshy and unfamiliar. Their supplies were stuck in the mud and the soldiers could not even care for their most basic of needs. Surrounded by the Germans, morale could not be lower. Caecina held the men together and roused their spirits with reminders of duty and home. Tacitus records him as further saying, “Running away would only mean more forests, worse swamps, savage attacks; but success would be glorious.

After a series of brilliant maneuvers, the Romans swept through the German line and gained firm ground once again. Tacitus records, “At the end of the day, the Romans re-entered their camp. They were hungry as ever, and their wounds were worse. But they had their cure, nourishment, restorative, everything in one – victory.”

When man rids himself of the fear of failure, he may inadvertently rob himself of the potential for victory.

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