"Provocateur" is Jack Feldman, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has also been employed in the Departments of Management at the University of Florida, Gainesville (1972-1985) and the University of Texas at Arlington (1985-1986.) He is a Fellow of The Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology and a Charter Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science.
Tuesday, October 30, 2012
I spent last weekend at an Advanced Urban Carbine class, building skill in and knowledge of the defensive use of rifles.* The class was taught by John Farnam, with the assistance of Richard Wright and Bill Doar.** As are all of John's classes, it was effortful and challenging.
Instruction was encouraging, but standards were high because life is unforgiving and there's usually only one chance to get things right. There was a test, as there is in all of John's classes; not incredibly difficult but hard enough. It's pass/fail and you get multiple chances at it, but there's no part credit and no excuses. Again, kind of like life. Most students passed, a few didn't. I didn't. I didn't get the commemorative pin John gives to those who pass, nor is there a consoling participation ribbon. That I almost passed--I was .38 sec. too slow--is irrelevant. So my weekend was a failure, right?
Not exactly. I got to try some new exercises with a rifle I'd never used in a demanding situation, and improved some old skills also. Now there's more to practice, to get competent should the need arise. I got to spend time with good folks, and share information about important things like staying alive under difficult circumstances. I found some limits that age and lousy eyesight impose, and ways around them. I'll be better next time.
Which brings me to the point, because this essay isn't a "What I did last summer" assignment. I spent forty-plus years teaching undergraduates and mentoring grad students. I've seen lots of colleagues come and go during those years,too. Far too many of them have defined success by some kind of award---a grade, a degree, a publication, a grant. They directed their efforts toward a prize, narrowly defined, rather than what the prize was supposed to represent. As students they asked "What's on the test?" instead of "What are the important ideas?" As grad students and professors they asked "What's publishable?" or "What's fundable?" They chose the safe, easy questions, the popular topics, the politically correct positions on controversies. They chose to spend their lives, personal and professional, not failing, and they called that success.
It's not. Real success requires failure, because real success means that you're pushing beyond the comfortable and familiar. In academia it means inventing questions nobody has thought to ask before, and answering them in ways others haven't explored. In sports it may be a new way of training, or a different technique. In business, a new product or service. You get the idea. Success is the result of taking on a challenge just far enough out of the safe, familiar and socially approved that it forces the extra effort that creativity depends on. Most often, one fails, but in that failure there's information, if you choose to use it instead of making excuses.
I've found, too, that there's no shortage of people willing to help if your effort is there. Some of my best work was the result of following the advice a journal editor gave when he rejected a manuscript, one that represented many months' work. The modest success I had in motorcycle racing came in no small part from listening to people who knew better than I, and had no patience for excuses. In shooting and self-defense,it's the same.***
We do our children, our students,our colleagues and friends no favors when we protect them from failure. They, and we, need to fail, learn from it, then get up and try again, until we and they succeed. And then, what's the reward? We all get to set the standard a little higher, so we can fail a few more times until we succeed again. Sure, there are trophies and honors and maybe big money, too. All that's fine, but they're not the real goals. The real goal is being better. Better than you were yesterday, better than the next guy, better than the doubters thought you could be. Just---better. Quote of the week:
"We are what we
repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit."
**John and his wife Vicki are highly respected instructors and good friends of ours. So are Richard and Bill. For those of you who don't know them, this doesn't mean they were easy on me, nor that I would expect them to be.
*** I'm still astonished by and grateful to all the very accomplished people who share their expertise with me for the asking. You know who you are. Thanks once again.