I happened to see two quotes yesterday that seemed apropos to the subject of success and failure, which has caught my attention over the last couple days. The first comes from Winston Churchill: “I am always ready to learn although I do not always like being taught.” The second is attributed to Henry James: “No man like to have his intelligence or good faith questioned, especially if he has doubts about it himself.”
It’s appointments season, so considerations of success and failure smack you in the face whether you like it or not. If my reaction is at all typical, you have to wonder, in the abundance of talent seeking jobs in the legal academy, how you yourself ever got hired. (Well, I am sure there are a few people out there who don’t have to wonder.) In the midst of a hiring season induced bout of impostor syndrome, I received a rejection e-mail from a peer-reviewed journal on a piece I had submitted six months ago. It’s pretty clear it was rejected at the editor level, not after being sent out for review (my experience from having had rejected a book manuscript that richly deserved to be rejected is that if the latter, you see the reviews). So I am here thinking out loud about taking my own advice, liberally offered to others, about failing well.
1. It’s not bad to fail ambitiously. I was attempting a difficult placement, and it was something of a flier when I started it. With six months reflection, I see my own weaknesses better (too many thoughts crammed into too little space; not enough accommodation to the concrete versus the abstract, hesitation about my own voice, etc., etc.).
2. Like Winston Churchill, I don’t mind learning, but I don’t always like being taught. What I think is more accurate in my case is that I don’t mind learning, I don’t even mind being taught (by a kind teacher), but I really don’t relish the prospect of being taught or criticized, which is always far worse in the anticipation than in the doing. And that, I think, is because of a slight variation on Henry James’ offering, which is that we Type-A, hyper-competitive, perfectionist, impostor-syndrome-affected sorts don’t like to anticipate our intelligence being questioned (which it rarely is!), especially when we have doubts about it ourselves.
3. It’s probably a bit of jargon, but in my prior life I always liked the idea of a learning organization as corporate model. It’s really, really tough to do, because it’s idealistic and aspirational, and the realities always come back to undermine it. Nevertheless, it’s a powerful enough concept that GE installed Steve Kerr as its Chief Learning Officer a number of years ago (he since moved on to Goldman Sachs doing the same thing). Learning in this context is more than being educated. This is from Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, which attracted quite a following. The idea is “personal mastery,” the kind of self-view we’d expect both from leaders and those led in a learning organization:
People with a high level of personal mastery live in a continual learning mode. They never ‘arrive’. Sometimes, language, such as the term ‘personal mastery’ creates a misleading sense of definiteness, of black and white. But personal mastery is not something you possess. It is a process. It is a lifelong discipline. People with a high level of personal mastery are acutely aware of their ignorance, their incompetence, their growth areas. And they are deeply self-confident. Paradoxical? Only for those who do not see the ‘journey is the reward’.
The great irony here, of course, is that schools are not necessarily learning organizations, particularly for faculty, but that’s a subject for another time and another place. Suffice it to say that in a learning organization we would talk about the relationship between failing ambitiously and succeeding cautiously.