To what extent is failure an important teacher?
History tells a complex story of mankind, with innumerable distinct experiences across the various echelons of society intertwining to compose a composite whole of human history. All these experiences tell a unique story, but among the most inspirational of them remains the apocryphal story of a person who persevered through hardship to finally achieve success. However, in order to gain further insight into this charming story of human tenacity and endeavour, we must analyse the concatenation of events that often lead up to this final ‘success’ and how individuals and nations have interacted with those events; and ultimately the final result of these interactions. Failure is but an inflexible experience in and of itself, what matters most is how individuals, nations, and societies relate and interact with this experience based on certain unique values. It is this process that will determine the culminating result.
Proponents claim that failure fundamentally undergirds one’s success because of the lessons which it teaches us that inform us of ‘ways that do not work’. In fact, the very scientific method itself is predicated upon ‘failure’ and the interaction with this ‘failure’ to attain the ultimate result. Karl Popper posited that the discipline of science is defined by the ‘falsifiability’ of theorems and conjectures produced by the scientific method. In other words, these theorems should be subjected to the possibility of ‘failure’, and in so doing mankind can determine the veracity of its claims and work towards the ‘truth’ that science aims to reach. The very fact that all scientific theorems are subjected to the possibility of failure in the pursuit of the ‘ultimate truth’ clearly illustrates the place which failure has in science, and more importantly, society. According to Karl Popper, to preclude failure is to preclude ‘falsifiability’, which is to preclude science itself. Indeed, many, if not all great scientists have experienced failure in the lead up to an epic discovery or breakthrough. Thomas Edison failed over 3000 times before he invented the light bulb, citing his failures as nothing more than ‘3000 ways that did not work’. As such, proponents claim with temerity that failure is an integral, indispensable teacher in all our human endeavours.
Yet another argument that proponents posit is that past failures have taught the world invaluable lessons that have led to the betterment of society. These monumental historical failures have brought about drastic change in the way in which the modern world operates, illustrating how failure is a ‘teacher’ to mankind of indubitable importance. Those lessons range across the prevention of war to drug safety in the modern world. The two world wars have taught man that the Liberalist view in Political Philosophy is wanting in today’s modern world, especially the tenet of self-help that underpins Liberalist theory. Self-help posits that only the nation state itself can be relied upon to protect its own sovereignty – this was more than overturned during the two world wars. The failure to prevent the outbreak of war illustrated the importance of international cooperation, finally culminating in international institutions with the likes of the United Nations and the European Union. The founding of the E.U is of monumental historical significance as it marks the end of centuries of European strife, ranging from the times of the Roman empire to the age of colonialism and finally the two world wars. Yet another example is how the failure of checks and balances in the drug industry that culminated in the Thalodimide disaster sparked off worldwide revision of food and drug standards, including that of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. All these examples serve to anchor the place that ‘failure’ has in teaching mankind for the amelioration of the human condition.
It is true that failure has an undeniable place in history that is of tremendous significance. However, what proponents fail to consider is that the experience and event of failure is but an ‘event’ at a certain point in time, it is subject to human interpretation and interaction with the subject matter. What lessons are drawn from failure is ultimately determined by man himself who teases out these lessons, and less on the ‘failures’ themselves. A corollary of this is that each individual, nation and society views failure through different lenses with different values, and that makes all the difference.
However, before we consider the way in which mankind can perceive failures, we should in fact investigate the veracity of the claim that the ‘lessons’ derived from failure are directly transferable to the modern context and that mankind can learn from mistakes of the past. Modern technology brings about an entirely new dimension to the issue. For example, the importance of the freedom of the press was an idea that was learnt from numerous historical failures, ultimately culminating in the enshrinement of this freedom in many democracies around the world, not in the least in the United States Constitution. The historical lessons are drawn as far back as the French Revolution. However, with the advent of social media and multimedia platforms that allow the ordinary citizen to be active participants of the press, this raises numerous questions that simply cannot be dealt with by past ‘failures’ because of the unique environment that mankind if living in at the present moment. In other words, ‘failures’ and ‘lessons’ are essentially existing in capsules in time under a specific set of circumstances. To ‘transport’ them to the 21st century is to deny the role that specific circumstances played in the process of that particular event. This raises questions about the applicability of past ‘failures’ to teach us present-day lessons.
Human perception of failure is one of the most important aspects to consider when investigating the concept of ‘failure and’ the lessons it supposedly teaches. Humans are ultimately individuals with a specific set of moral guidelines, unique experiences, and specific ways of thinking. Hence, the way in which we interact with information and the lessons we draw will ultimately be different. Not to mention the circumstances and position we are in at the occurrence of that particular failure – this is also of tremendous importance. Let us examine the case of the end of the cold war, marked by the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989. The fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Soviet era and the birth of numerous states that were previously annexed by and under the iron-grip control of Moscow. The lessons drawn from the process of the monumental collapse of the Soviet empire vastly differed among Moscow, Washington, and Beijing. Mikhail Gorbachev opened the spigot of change with the abandonment of the Brezhnev Doctrine in 1985 in his search for rapprochement with the West, ultimately leading to the collapse of the Soviet empire. Russian politicians and political thinkers derived the following lesson from this event in history: they would be loath to trust western promises again. Washington drew a completely different set of lessons. The failure of the Soviet Union presented itself to Washington as ‘undeniable and irrefutable’ evidence of the ‘superiority’ of democracy, leading to the United States’ wars and monumental failures in Iraq and Vietnam, among others. Beijing too, drew different lessons. This was evident from the June 4th massacre at Tiananmen Square in the same year of 1989. The Tiananmen Square massacre showcased to the world, without the shadow of a doubt, the certainty of Beijing’s lesson from this point in history: that the communist party will keep an unrelenting, iron-grip on power, never to follow in the footsteps of Gorbachev and his ‘failed’ conciliatory policies. This epic illustration of how the different international superpowers drew vastly different lessons that stand worlds apart from one another from exactly the same event in history – the failure of the Soviet Union- clearly shows how ‘failure’ can teach completely different lessons; the lessons drawn ultimately lie with the viewer, not the ‘failure’ itself.
The final consideration of ‘failure’ is how it only teaches us what did not succeed, it fails to teach us what does. In this way, it in no way guarantees success from the applicability of its lessons, hence the place of failure is questioned when one is given the task of making a new decision or one that is set under a unique context. If we consider history, the brilliant tactical decisions made in world war two illustrate this brilliantly. Operation Overlord saw the invasion of the European landmass on the beaches of Normandy. This operation has no precedence in history, not at this epic scale. To be sure, no one knew if it would succeed simply because the ‘past failures’ were on a much smaller scale in a completely different era, when human flight had yet to be developed. Neither did the massive Operation Market Garden that saw General Montgomery parachuting over 20,000 soldiers – indeed, flight was not even possible in times past, let alone the possibility of this tactic. In this way, ‘failure’ and the circumstances surrounding it are completely specific and hence new possibilities that are made possible by the advancement of technology cannot be evaluated in light of past ‘failures’.
In conclusion, although it is true that the scientific method is predicated upon the notion of failure and that past failures have brought about the amelioration of society in many respects, failure can only be an important lesson in so far as the way in which we perceive it, just as the case of the cold war illustrates. When mankind perceives past ‘failures’, it must be careful to understand the peculiar circumstances under which it took place and hence be mindful now to transport the ‘lesson’ into the present completely intact; deconstruction is necessary. The most reliable way in which mankind can learn from failure is not to study particular events but to analyse the trend of past ‘failures’ in history to derive a certain set of trends, and patterns. As the classic book ‘The rise and fall of civilisations’ details, it is only when mankind learns from the overall trend of past failures can we derive any meaningful conclusion, and it is only then can failure teach us important lessons.
Marker’s comments: Apart from the very cliched example of Thomas Edison (when you could have used instead more recent innovators such as Steve Jobs or Bill Gates) this is an impressive, mature and intelligent response – a marvellous tour de force! The wide range of ideas and excellent examples were outstanding! I enjoyed every minute of reading this!