The Right to Fail

Posted on September 16, 2018


We all have rights as American citizens. Just ask any “sea lawyer” as we used to call know-it-alls in the Navy.

But we have failed to provide in the Constitution for one of the most fundamental rights: the right to fail.

Let’s explore this a bit since that sounds kind of negative. It’s not.

We have undermined that right so much that people think they can’t or won’t fail because government in one form or another will always be there to save them from themselves.

I’m not blaming the Founding Fathers for failing to include the right to fail in the Constitution. They took it for granted that if it wasn’t for failure we would never learn or move forward.

There are always risks involved of course. If the American Revolution had failed and the British knocked Washington and his allies the French and Spanish to their knees and surrender, we may well have evolved as Canada did.

I am not knocking our wonderful neighbors to the north, but we have some different traditions that arose because we were successful in the American Revolution. The British failed, but they learned from their failure and eventually Americans and Brits embraced in the twentieth century and saved the world from tyrannies and fascists.

Failing can be analyzed for its great benefits from both a personal and corporate or national point of view. This analysis is somewhat counterintuitive. That is to say, it goes against what prevails as “common sense.” Who wants to fail? Nobody!

I taught at a school known for football for my entire teaching career. And the Coach who put UA on the football map was Paul Bear Bryant who famously summed up his philosophy with “I ain’t never been nothing but a winner.”

Grammatically it kind of jars, but it catches a truth. Bear loved to win. But his devotion and skills at winning, motivating young men to do more than they thought they could, was sharpened by losing, by failing to win. He was a winner not because he knew how to lose, but he knew how to learn from his loses.

Or as Dale Carnegie put it, “Develop success from failures. Discouragement and failure are two of the surest stepping stones to success.”

Let me give this thought another push. One of the greatest English generals in World War II, Bernard Law Montgomery, expressed it this way: “I was well beaten myself, and I am better for it.”

“Kites rise highest against the wind,” Winston Churchill observed, “not with it.” I liked that one. It captures the duality of the issue. Loses and successes as two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other.

Henry Ford expressed it well. “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.” Colin Powell added, “there are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work and learning from failure.”

We can beat this drum until one tires of hearing it. Reading it might make one think, “this guy must crave failure so he can later have his successes and victories.” Nothing could be further from the truth. But failures are a part of life.

Years ago, I struggled my last year in college to make good enough grades to graduate in time. That’s four years for all of you on the five or six-year plan. I had almost gone under my first semester senior year, failing French 101, barely passing Comparative Anatomy, and scoring a few B’s in history to limp into the final semester.

I wrote myself a note, long since lost in many moves, a fire, etc. But I told myself, learn from this you dummy. Read the requirements of your courses. DO the work; don’t put it off. You can do this.  I lifted myself up by my own bootstraps, learned the ignominy of just wiggling along, almost failing, or actually failing a course, and making failure a signal turning point in turning around.

I graduated on time, even with a three point something when my average grades were usually 2.0-2.5, long before grade inflation and other factors made a joke of grades.

I’m not bragging, but it sure felt better than the grade report at the end of the fall semester. Besides, the French instructor was a snob from Paris and he didn’t like me. Bear probably had lots of coaches who didn’t like him either but winning sure beat loosing.

Published as “The right to fail should have been in the Constitution,” in The Tuscaloosa News, Sunday Aug. 5, 2018