Why Failure is an Option

by Tim Richards, Head of School –
Excerpted from his Academic Convocation talk

It is fitting that we began Pomfret’s 119th year by celebrating the academic achievements of so many students from last year. At Pomfret, one of our central goals is to have our students pursue their passions and to succeed in doing so. We want them to achieve at a high level in academics, to aspire to victory on the playing field, to develop new talents in the arts, and to make great friends and be comfortable socially. At the very core of my being, my hope for all of our students is a year full of success – academic, artistic, athletic, and social- however you may wish to define it. However, as Bill Gates once said, “It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

As much as we want our students to succeed, the teachers, coaches, advisors, and I also have a genuine hope that our students fail this year.

Please understand that I am not talking about severe or catastrophic failure. I don’t want anyone to fail out of Pomfret or to even fail a course. I don’t want our students to fail to adhere to our standards so badly that they are asked to leave. I don’t want students to fail to make any friends, or fail to help people in need. Those are “bad” failures.

But great success is often linked to failure. When asked about his repeated failures on his way to creating the light bulb, Thomas Edison said,“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” And when he at last achieved his goal he added, “I failed my way to success.”

I worry that too often we choose to do things we are good at in order to minimize the prospect of failure. This deters us from trying new things, from engaging in activities that might challenge, push, or stretch us in uncomfortable ways that could result in failure. This might mean not taking a challenging course, or not volunteering your opinion in class because it might be wrong. It might mean not auditioning for a role in a play or trying out for a new sport because you are worried about rejection or getting cut. It might mean that you limit yourself to socializing with a certain group of people so that you don’t risk not fitting in with a new crowd.

It is understandable, perhaps instinctual, for us to seek easy success rather than the discomfort of possible failure. So we are inclined to choose the safe way and to not set the risk bar high enough. But I want to challenge everyone to fight that inclination.

Failure is inevitable. I failed Algebra II when I was in high school. When I was leaving a teaching internship I had after college, I failed to land a job at the school where I really wanted to work. In college I told a woman that one day we would be married, but I failed to get her to even be seen alone with me for 8 months.

The type of failure I wish for you is the failure that comes despite your best effort and from which you are willing to learn. Like many people, I had to learn not to be defeatist in the face of failure. In the examples I gave you about myself a moment ago, I had to be resilient. I took Algebra II again, worked my rear end off, and passed. I dedicated myself to teaching for two years after not getting the job I had wanted, and that same school offered me a teaching position for the following year. And that woman who wouldn’t be seen with me in college? It took some time and repeated rejections, but I’ve been very happily married to her for more than 23 years.

You can rest assured that all of your teachers have at one time or another failed, so we understand. We will love you all, fail or not – perhaps even more if you do fail, at least if you’re really trying. We can empathize with your discomfort with failure and we recognize its value in your development.

Finally, I want you to fail because, as Truman Capote once said, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.”

If you can fail a handful of times this year – failure that you could attribute to embracing new and lofty challenges, not to your indifference or lack of effort – and then observe Gates’ words to “heed the lessons of failure,” then I will consider your school year a tremendous success.

About Pomfret School

Founded in 1894, Pomfret is an independent co-educational college preparatory boarding and day school for 350 students in grades 9 through 12 and postgraduate, located on a scenic 500 acre campus in Northeastern Connecticut.
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