Letter to the Editor: Dealing with Failure: A Grinnellian Perspective

letter to the editor graphic

Hello, can you hear me? (again) 

This week has been quite the whirlwind. The most wonderful time of the year, Hell Week (No, not “penultimate week” … Come on, that’s like expecting students to get eight hours of sleep a night, exercise every day, eat healthy and get their homework done on a daily basis) has brought a little extra fun with it this year. Students have emerged from the depths of Noyce and the cubicles of Burling and mobilized to voice their dissent on the way the most recent Community Advisor (CA) contract was created and have joined the broader conversation on the lack of transparency, loss of trust and missing communication many students have seen from the Student Affairs office. When it comes down to it, really we are having conversations about how we have conversations. Sound familiar? This is a trope that has been repeated in several different forms in my time at Grinnell: Title IX, racism, Yik Yak and as always, self-gov.

Figuring out how to collaborate isn’t a Grinnell-specific problem. If there were an easy solution on how to have productive collaborative conversation, maybe our elected representatives could pass legislation … even things that should be non-controversial like renewing health care for the 9/11 First Responders. But really, isn’t this skill one that we are supposed to learn before we leave kindergarten? What, then, creates the circumstances that foster or obstruct conversations that lead to solutions? And, at Grinnell, we certainly are not in such an extreme environment as Congress. I’d be surprised to meet anyone in our community who disagrees with the goal of creating a safe, healthy and positive environment that leads to the sustained success of students. Then why, when we all are working to the same goals, do we have so much trouble including each other in the processes that lead to policy implementation at our fine institution?

My current working theory is this: there is a clear sense in our immediate, national and even global community that failure is bad and therefore should be feared. We are afraid of failure. We are afraid to make mistakes. We are afraid of not knowing something.  We are afraid to be wrong. It is precisely this negative association with failure, this fear of failure that puts up barriers to productive collaborative conversations. So, what do we see? Rather than coming to conversations open-minded, people are coming to the table ready to fight for their solution using defensive, stubborn tactics or even shutting down conversations entirely. This is not limited to the Grinnell administration. In our student community we are some of the worst offenders. We live in a community that values academics and encourages students to push their limits in how many things they can accomplish in their time at Grinnell. This week in particular, we find failure, whether it is academic or personal, unacceptable. This notion that failure is bad resonates with all of us. 

But failure isn’t bad, it’s how we learn. So, what do we do to spread this notion that it’s acceptable to fail? The most productive conversations and learning opportunities I have experienced have been in intentionally formed safe spaces. For example, the classes where my professors have let me be completely and totally wrong, to totally fail, have been the ones where I learned the most. Safe spaces are where I can take the biggest risks, and though sometimes I fail spectacularly, once in a while I get something really right.

I would like to call bullshit on the recently popularized trope that safe spaces are ruining the chances for productive debate. Safe spaces are not, in fact, another way to coddle our naïve young minds, but really, they let us challenge the idea that failure is bad. They let us practice vulnerability and empathy. When we learn to admit fault, make concessions and fail on our own, we practice the skills that are essential in coming to consensus as a community to achieve common goals.

Let’s bring it back to Grinnell. At this point you can probably guess where I’m going with this: SELF-GOV. Self-gov not only creates safe spaces, it allows us to shape what those spaces look like. We already have the tools we need to address our “conversation” problem. Now we just need to embrace our own and each other’s failures in the same way we celebrate success.

Self-gov is love,


[hellerre1] [pubqueen]