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Contributed By:

Alexander Johnson

Failure

OPB | April 7, 2011 9:06 a.m. | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 9:58 p.m.

This month Oregon Humanities explores the idea of failure. We pick up on their idea and ask: how has failure changed you?

Kim Stafford, a writer and successful man by nearly any measure, lists among his failures: getting a PhD in medieval literature, starting the Northwest Writing Institute, writing two books, and teaching for 30 years at Lewis & Clark College. To most people, this string of accomplishments would be just that, something to be proud of. But Kim Stafford explains himself by writing:

Each named accomplishment hid the true life of struggling, faltering, failure.

Jennifer Corpus, a psychology professor at Reed College, studies how elementary and middle-school children respond to success, praise and failure. One thing she’s learned is that it’s often the most successful students who are the least prepared to deal with failure. This raises an important question: How can we prepare children for failure without forcing them to experience it? The answer, it turns out, has a lot to do with how we praise their success.

All of this leads us to ask, what is failure, exactly? Is it the dark side of success, the absence of success or just an inevitable part of the process? Some people see failure as a sort of fall from grace, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. This interpretation of failure has lasted for centuries, showing that our parents and grandparents shape our definition of and response to failure. We’ll speak with John Holloran, a teacher at Oregon Episcopal School, about how we we draw on history and culture to define failure.

How do you define failure? What role does it play in your life? What have been your most enriching or formative failures?

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