What is failure?


Regular readers of my blog know that for the last eighteen months I have been participating in the flash fiction challenges set by Charli Mills at the Carrot Ranch. Each week Charli posts a prompt and invites readers to submit a response in exactly 99 words. I have participated since the first prompt and have missed only a few, maybe one or two.

I enjoy the way the prompt stretches both my thinking and my writing. I appreciate the opportunity to engage in fiction as a diversion from the mainly expository writing (and reading) I do; and to engage in a supportive and encouraging group of Rough Writers.

Since education is the focus of my blog I have given myself the added challenge of targeting an aspect of education in my response to Charli’s prompt. Mostly I have succeeded, though sometimes the posts may be a bit convoluted and the links rather tenuous, but nevertheless, I have been mostly pleased with my ability to find a link.

This time I didn’t think I was going to do it. While I grappled for a suitable link, none was forthcoming and I thought it was going to be an F, a no-show, this time.


You see, this week Charli is talking about the destruction caused by forest fires and other catastrophic weather events. Though Australia suffers its share of natural disasters, I am fortunate that I have never been more than inconvenienced by them. I haven’t suffered the loss of family, property and livelihood that others have; nor have I worked in a school where loss was experienced on a large scale. You could say I have lived a sheltered life, and I am grateful for it.

So without a personal experience to share, my next thoughts were to the curriculum. But I am an early childhood teacher, and young children don’t learn about catastrophic events unless they have a personal experience of them. The Australian Curriculum introduces learning about natural disasters in year six.

Another dead end. The F was looming. Would it engulf me?

Then inspiration! I remembered watching a video in which the possibility of an F being the new A was mooted.  I’m sure you’ve all heard about 60 being the new 40, for example; generally put forward by the 60s rather than the 40s I conjecture. But this was a new twist.

The article on Mind/Shift How we will learn entitled When Educators Make Space For Play and Passion, Students Develop Purpose introduced me to a Harvard education specialist named Tony Wagner who, like Ken Robinson, advocates for a reinvention of the education system.

In the video Wagner says that “What the world cares about is not what you know, but what you can do with what you know.” Content is now available through a quick internet search. We don’t need to have instant recall of numerous facts.

Instead of content, Wagner lists a set of core competencies he considers important. He says that to be lifelong learners and active and informed citizens, the following abilities are required:

  1. To ask questions through critical thinking and problem solving
  2. To work collaboratively
  3. To be flexible and adaptable
  4. To show initiative and be entrepreneurial
  5. To communicate effectively in both oral and written modalities
  6. To access and analyse information
  7. To be curious and imaginative

I agree that each of these attributes is important. I think I have mentioned many of them in previous posts.

Wagner goes on to say that what is needed is innovation: the ability to generate new and better ideas that can be used to solve the problems facing us today. He questions whether America’s reputation as a leader in innovation is as a result of or despite the education system. He then asks the audience to identify what the following four people have in common.

Bill Gates (Microsoft)

Edwin Land (Polaroid camera)

Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook)

Bonnie Raitt (folk singer)

Did you, like the audience, think them to be dropouts? Wagner identified them as not just dropouts; they were Harvard College dropouts! Steve Jobs (Apple) and Michael Dell (Dell computers) were dropouts.

This fact about innovative dropouts inspired Wagner to investigate conditions that encourage the development of innovators. He interviewed many young innovators, asking if there had been an influential teacher or mentor in their lives. While not many could name one, those identified were outliers, engaging students in teamwork and interdisciplinary work involving problem solving and risk taking.

Wagner also interviewed people from innovative organisations such as IDEO, whose motto he quoted: “Fail early and fail often.” (“That’s because there is no innovation without trial and error.”) It was from a think tank at Stanford that the idea that an “F is the new A” came.

F is the new A

There are iterations, not failure, Wagner says, and he questions the way parents and teachers try to protect children from making mistakes saying that real self-confidence was only to be gained from learning that you could recover and learn from mistakes.

Tony Wagner - iterations

So perhaps in thinking about failure, I haven’t really failed. I’m learning. It is only to be hoped that the failures in fire management that Charli talks about in her post lead to improved management practices in the future.

For my response to Charli’s prompt, to  in 99 words (no more, no less) write a story about the need for help in an extreme weather event, I have chosen a weaker BOTS (based on a true story) from my childhood. The link may be tenuous but hopefully not entirely non-existent. I hope you enjoy it.


A big storm was coming. Two older ones were put in charge of two younger ones. They sat at the fence, watching. Soon other neighbourhood kids gathered, sharing storm stories, waiting.

Green clouds swirled as dark clouds played leapfrog races above. The children watched the storm rush closer; mesmerised by its beauty, mindful of its power.

Soon the winds whipped up, chasing the other kids home. The older two called to the younger, but they were nowhere to be seen. Mortified they hurried inside to alert their parents.

What relief. They were already in, telling of the storm’s approach.

Thank you

Thank you for reading. I appreciate your feedback. Please share your thoughts about any aspect of this post or flash fiction.

23 thoughts on “What is failure?

  1. Pingback: How important is perfection? | Norah Colvin

  2. Bec

    Hi Nor, a very interesting post as always. It’s great to see “failure” as an opportunity for learning and adaptation, rather than the end of the road. Although it does strike me that being a “Harvard” drop out indicates a great deal of success up to that point… Dropping out can often be a strategic choice based on leveraging on past and cumulative successes, rather than any sort of failure. So I think in some ways it can be dangerous to highlight successes of the irreverent few who “bent the rules” because they had the right combination of personal and intellectual attributes, and presumably the right place and time. There are others who maybe fit somewhere in the ‘middle’ of the human condition who will achieve their best by working hard and sticking with schooling, even if it’s imperfect. Because not everyone can excel while playing by their own rules. Loved the FF – makes me want the storm season to arrive!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks, Bec, for your very thoughtful addition to the conversation. You are right to question the validity of making the point about Harvard, or any dropouts. After all, it is important to question everything, isn’t it? I guess I am a dropout too. I dropped out of my masters degree, and didn’t see other projects through to completion. My being a dropout hasn’t led to success. However I think the point is that there are many roads to success (whatever that is) and schooling and university is but one of those, and not necessarily the best one in all cases, especially in those areas in which new ways of thinking are required.
      Glad you enjoyed the flash. I was thinking about you and your big brother when I was writing it, though it was actually about me and my siblings! 🙂


  3. julespaige

    I enjoyed this post. We do learn by mistakes. I remember warning one of my sons to be careful going fast on his bike down a neighborhood hill. Sometimes speed can be hard to control. And he lost it. The neighbors mailbox suffered the most from the crash. But he had the sense enough to come home, tell us so he could help to repair the mailbox.

    Somethings people need to experience themselves. You can only recommend time management skills to someone who is always late. If you cut it too close trying to catch a train, sometimes you are going to miss it. And respect is a two way street. Some things can’t always be learned from books. And sometimes we are extremely lucky to have teachers who actually teach us how to learn out of the classroom as well as in it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you, Jules, for your fantastic comment adding so many insights. Your poor son. That’s a hard way to learn a lesson. It is great that he wanted to repair the damage. That’s a good lesson too.
      I definitely agree about respect being a two-way street, and the importance of learning from experience. Sometimes it’s the best but possibly harshest teacher.
      I agree with you about the necessity of learning how to learn independently. If we learned only what was taught in school, we’d end up not knowing very much!
      I appreciate your addition to the discussion. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you. That’s amazing! Almost 7000 words! I hadn’t considered the cumulative achievement, just the weekly one, so thanks for pointing it out! 🙂


  4. Pingback: Smoke on the Horizon « Carrot Ranch Communications

  5. Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

    Another thought provoking post Norah that is going to prompt me to look into mind shift a bit further. I’m glad you have never experienced a severe event and hope that you never have to. Lets hope that our PM will take note of the US informing everyone now is the time for action.
    Loved your flash. I can just see the two older ones searching for the littlies and the fear they must have felt going in to tell the adults.
    I think learning to fail is a crucial life lesson as is learning that you aren’t the best at everything. I love that all those role models were drop outs. Imagine if the system had worked for them just where they may have taken us.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thanks Irene. I don’t have any confidence that the PM will change his mind about climate change. I think he’s a bit resolute on that. Tim Flannery is a wonderful advocate for acknowledging it and taking action though, so if enough people get behind him, we might have a tidal wave that the PM can’t ignore.
      We have our share of successful dropouts too, including Dick Smith and Ita Buttrose, who come instantly to mind. I know there are others as well.
      Thanks for your comment. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Charli Mills

    A true life-long learner, you discover iteration. I’m learning that it is uplifting to be around other learners and to be valued for innovations that might have started as a failure. Your flash gave me a start! How easy it is to get distracted from watching the younger ones.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Iterations is a great word, isn’t it? I’m reading (with my ears) a great book at the moment called “To Teach: The Journey of a Teacher”. It is wonderful to listen to such a passionate teacher. We share so much in common, but he is able to express his experiences so eloquently and with with such passion that I long for those teaching days still.
      We should not have been distracted. We were given the responsibility, but it all worked out in the end. 🙂


  7. TanGental

    I think the idea that failure is iteration is neat. Some failures stink of course but they do afford a learning chance if you survive them. Like your other commentators I loved a god storm especially inside listening to the windows rattle. At my gran’s old house on the north Kent coast with nothing between it and the snows of the Arctic a north easterly meant that, if the shutters weren’t closed in time the curtains would be plastered to the ceiling because the gaps around the old windows meant the wind could get in. Quite a sight, really The front door couldn’t be opened either so we always had to come in the back way. Grand flash too, I nearly forgot to mention it.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you Geoff. What an image your words create. How cold those winds straight off the arctic would be. Brrrr! Storms like that make for good atmosphere in mystery or murder movies. I’m thinking of a particular one, if only I could remember the name! It reminded me of the game Cluedo, though I think everyone (but one) was murdered in this movie while they tried to figure out who was doing it.
      I think iteration is a great word too. The idea stands very nicely with yet. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  8. roweeee

    Norah, I really found your post very interesting, especially wioth what’s been going on here today.
    Firstly, I was interested to hear that our school system doesn’t teach kids about natural disasters until Year 6.
    A few children in my son’s class have lost a parent and today was the birthday of one of these mums and their class blew bubbles to honour her special day and to come together to support her daughter. I have been quite unwell again this week with a lung infection and I found it so comforting to hear that the class supported her in this way and to know that my kids wouldn’t be alone.
    Secondly, my daughter sent an application off for an audition for the role of Marta in the Sydney production of the Sound of Music. She has been quite unwell and had severe vocal nodules and so I did try to discourage her but to no avail. Meanwhile, I’ve been really sick. The audition is on Monday and we’ll be staying around the corner with a friend to get there on time.
    I will be writing a few posts about it and thought you’d appreciate this one about the application: https://beyondtheflow.wordpress.com/2015/09/01/climb-every-mountain-singing-towards-her-dream/
    By the way, I enjoyed your flash fiction. I got caught photographing a storm about a year ago and was absolutely drenched and the camera was soaked. They are quite mesmerising. xx Rowena

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Norah Post author

      Thank you for sharing your experiences, Rowena. How sad for those children to have lost a parent so young. It is a lovely thing for the school to honour them in that way. It must be terrible to face leaving your children and to not see them grow up. My sister passed when her children were 10, 8, and 6. We had many discussions on the topic. She was hopeful of beating her cancer until the end, but such was not to be.
      Whatever the outcome of the audition this will be a wonderful learning experience for your daughter, as long as she doesn’t feel that acceptance is the only suitable result. It sounds like her determination is as strong as yours and I wish you both all the strength that is needed at this time. Thank you for drawing my attention to this post. While I receive notification of all your posts, I don’t always have time to drop by.
      Glad you enjoyed the flash fiction. I hope the photos were worth the soaking. I’d love to see them sometime.
      Thanks for sharing. 🙂


  9. Autism Mom

    Lovely imagery! I love watching storms and one of the things I have asked my husband to someday do is for us to buy a house with a view across the valley so I can watch the storms roll over the mountains.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Annecdotist

    Norah, you’re a great innovator and I always love the twists and turns that take your readers on an educational journey to Charli’s prompt. I’m excited at the thought of education changing so that critical thinking is the norm. Who knows, perhaps we’ll find a solution to climate change (actually, I’m not holding my hopes).
    And loved your Flash, now wondering if you were one of the responsible older ones of the younger ones sneaking back inside.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Norah Post author

      Hi Anne, I always appreciate the support you give and the additional insights you offer. I am hoping, too, that a solution to climate change will be found. This article about “The Atmosphere of Hope” points towards that occurring. https://theconversation.com/theres-another-way-to-combat-climate-change-but-lets-not-call-it-geoengineering-46519
      Since you have asked about my flash, I have to admit I was one of the older ones. While I couldn’t say in 99 words, we were rather distraught and spent some time searching before we went inside to be told that the younger ones had gone in long before the arrival of the storm – sensible little ones! 🙂

      Liked by 2 people


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