Toward an understanding of failure and coping

I wrote previously about a personal experience of failure as a way of exploring ideas that I want to elaborate on now.  My subject was work on a Thunderbird bug that involved some complicated string work.  My intention in writing the post was to attempt to expose a philosophy of failure that sees opportunity in setback, challenge in defeat.  I didn't update that post intentionally, but I've since overcome and fixed all of my problems--I think this was implicit in what I wrote, but I wanted it to remain implicit.  I was interested in showing practical ways that failure can become progress if viewed and acted upon in healthy ways.  For purposes of developing a productive philosophy of failure, I will refer to this simply as coping, and try to elaborate on what I mean by the term.

I'm fascinated with the idea of coping, and therefore of failure, too; not 'coping with' something, which is the only way you encounter it in popular or academic treatments. No, I'm interested in coping as such, in coping as a first order mode of being. I'm interested in what it means to exist in a state of not-knowing, and the particular behaviour one must adopt in order to survive in such a setting. I'm interested in what it means to stay engaged in such activities for long periods of time. Most of all, I'm interested in what strategies exist (Luke would say 'tactics'), what arts can be employed, what it means practically for one to choose a life of coping.

I blame Chris Blizzard for the fact that I'm writing this.  Two weeks ago, I wrote about Gladwell's essay on genius, and Chris was kind enough to comment with a link to a video of Gladwell discussing this at length, and in particular the cases of Michael Ventris and Andrew Wiles. I've read about both men in the past. In particular, I can remember watching an emotional and inspiring documentary about Wiles' work to solve Fermat's Last Theorm:

I've never forgotten seeing that documentary, and it's been more than 10 years ago that I watched in on Nova. I'm not a mathematician, but it aligned with something in me that I didn't have a name for at the time, what I now call coping.

Those two videos have pulled at me all day. What happens when you decide to do something hard, something that will take a lot of time, something that is completely opaque? What does it mean to cope? What does the word even mean?

To Cope is, at first: to strike, to come to blows, to fight, to meet in battle. It is filled with shock, violence, and activity. It is what I must do in order to survive. It is to encounter, to meet, to deal with. It is my existence when confronted with the other.

For me, the idea of coping came out of a need for some way to describe how I thought, how I taught, how I existed. It stands in apposition to what I call knowing, which is informed by the Greek sense of having seen and therefore being aware of something, what others will call "innate talent."  Coping is about what I do because I don't know or because I can't. However, coping and knowing are not true opposites, as I will, primarily as a matter of choice, continue to cope even when I know.

Gladwell talks a great deal about the "willingness to focus," the role of "effort and training," the significance of quantity (e.g., time, people) over quality. Wiles talks about the same thing, retreating from his professional life in order to focus and come to terms with the problem for a span of seven years--another 10,000 hours, Gladwell points out. "Stubbornness matters," says Gladwell. It means something that one stays engaged with the problem. It means something to pick-up a problem so big that it will take that long (longer really, since Wiles was already a gifted mathematician when he started) to get anything done: "I spent the first two years just understanding the problem."

But there is more than time and plodding-forward momentum behind such success.  I'm also convinced that failure plays a significant role in coping.  For this idea I'm indebted to professor Carol Dweck, who has spent her career studying failure, ability, and talent.  A recent article about her new book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has some incredible quotable bits:

The key, she found, isn’t ability; it’s whether you look at ability as something inherent that needs to be demonstrated or as something that can be developed.
“Failure is information—we label it failure, but it’s more like, ‘This didn’t work, I’m a problem solver, and I’ll try something else.’” During one unforgettable moment, one boy—something of a poster child for the mastery-oriented type—faced his first stumper by pulling up his chair, rubbing his hands together, smacking his lips and announcing, “I love a challenge.”
Tests, Dweck notes, are notoriously poor at measuring potential. Take a group of adults and ask them to draw a self-portrait. Most Americans think of drawing as a gift they don’t have, and their portraits look no better than a child’s scribbles. But put them in a well-designed class—as Betty Edwards, the author of Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, has—and the resulting portraits look so skilled it’s hard to believe they’re the work of the same “talentless” individuals. The belief that you can’t improve stunts achievement.
I'm convinced that these ideas about ability and the meaning of failure are crucial to how we teach and how we learn.  But it's hard to get to the bottom of how we instill this.  Luke asked me a question I couldn't answer some weeks back. He wanted to know where this comes from: where and how does one acquire the ability to focus, the willingness to cope with not knowing, the audacity to do what can't be done? I don't know, and I'm troubled by this.

The question reminded me of Hermann Hesse's book, The Prodigy, the story of a bright boy who is systematically (all meanings of that word are in play) broken by the educational system.  On the back of my edition (an edition whose cover has always given me pause) it says, "It is the school's job to break in the natural man, subdue and greatly reduce him."  This is the story of a boy who is forced by an overzealous father, schoolmaster, and pastor to cope without choosing it.  Again, a quote from Wiles: "I was privileged to pursue in my adult life my childhood dream." The juxtaposition of these two experiences shocks me.  While I am convinced of the value of coping as a mode of being, I am made aware of the need for failure to become information in a meaningful way, for failure to be viewed as important not just by me, but by those over me.  I don't believe that this can always happen in isolation.  Rather, I believe that it requires others to help me give the name 'information' to my 'failure'.  Wiles story is a story of community, of collaboration, and of professional collegiality and conviviality.  I don't think this is a coincidence.

Spending as much time as I do in a large open source community, I've come to believe that coping is allowing others to help me overcome failure.  It is an attitude I must adopt for myself, and cannot be forced on another.  However, it is an attitude that needs proper models.  Coping, if it is to become a sustained practice, needs to be seen in the proper light.  It is acceptable to not know.  It is reasonable to fail.  It is, in fact, assumed.  What follows this failure is what really matters: do you get out of the water or swim a little deeper?  The metaphor of water, deep water, and the swimmer is important too me.  I've spent time swimming in very deep water with no shore nearby.  In every case it was possible only because I wasn't alone, and could count on the people around me.  I believe that coping exists in relationship and requires the other.

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