Failing Successfully

The New York Times recently reported on the trend among some elite colleges to host courses and seminars on failure. As these schools tend to welcome the nation’s best and brightest graduating high school seniors, many of these students have never really failed at anything: They are at the top of their classes, achieved greatly in athletics and the arts, excelled in extra-curricular activities, and won the adulation of their teachers, coaches, and community. Yet, one important accomplish they lack is successfully navigating failure.

Consequently, when such fine universities gather hundreds of over-achievers, some students, who once carried only 4.0s and were elected to leadership roles in every club or activity they joined, find themselves painfully flummoxed at the new experience of not attaining to what they aspired. With new positions like director of resilience programs, Smith College and Princeton and Stanford Universities, among others, have hired staff to both teach and counsel students as they negotiate the pain of failing.

As Christian disciples, we are all too familiar with failure, and we have been formed from our earliest days to deal with it through the grace of God. We know that there are no 4.0s in life and no straight As with God. The power of making our first confession as a young person socializes us, in a healthy way, where we can misstep, make mistakes, and even sin, but know that nothing will separate us from the love of God.

This level of resilience is essential, and it transfers to other areas of our lives, whether at work, school, or home. No one expects us to be perfect, certainly not God. If we expect this of ourselves—or others, might we be struggling with the First Commandment?

Furthermore, St. Francis de Sales teaches us, in The Introduction to the Devout Life, to love those areas where we may fall, though not as a way of encouraging us to sin more. Rather, he wants us to recognize our utter dependence on the grace of God. Elsewhere, he tells us when we do sin, to pick ourselves up, express our sorrow, resolve to avoid that sin, and move on with joy.

We may not have attended the greatest universities, but we are bathed in the grace of God. Is there any more successful way to fail?