Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Failure: Borrowing wisdom from the halls of Monsters University



I have two small children, and thus Pixar movies are an inescapable component of my daily existence.  Thankfully, somewhere between my youth and now, movie producers realized that their films will be much more popular if they include at least some humor that can be appreciated by parents.  But, in the last movie we watched, we were surprised to also find some profound wisdom regarding education and life in general.

Monsters University serves as a prequel to Monsters, Inc., and describes how all-star team James P. "Sully" Sullivan and Michael "Mike" Wazowski met in college and got their start in the field of Scaring.  They are both enrolled in the Scaring Program at Monsters University, and their class receives a surprise visit from the head of the program, Dean Hardscrabble, on the first day of class.


As part of her motivational speech, Dean Hardscrabble tells the class that her job is "to make great students greater, not make mediocre students less mediocre." The profoundness of this statement can only be appreciated by unpacking the relationship between greatness, mediocrity, and failure.

Much of what we do in life is driven by fear of failure.  It is tempting to set our goal as "I want to pass this exam/assignment/class" or "I want to be good enough to keep my job."  But, this is the entirely wrong approach.  Underlying these goals of being "just good enough" is the attitude of settling for mediocrity.  And, there really is no way to improve from that position — there is no such thing as "less mediocre."

But, surely mediocrity is better than failure, right?  (Any student who has taken my class knows that if I have to ask, then the answer is "no").  Settling for mediocrity means a life of never really trying.  In contrast, failure means aiming for greatness and occasionally missing.  In fact, if you look at history, it is almost impossible to achieve greatness without also suffering some measure of failure.  So, my goal for myself is to de-stigmatize failure, instead viewing it as an inevitable encounter on the road to success, and far preferable to mediocrity.

As will likely become apparent in this blog, I idolize Dan Pink.  And, it is not surprising that he has also weighed in on the topic of greatness, mediocrity, and failure.  He writes that "Most people are more frightened of failure than of mediocrity. It should be the reverse.  Failure is a broken leg — painful, but easily fixed. Mediocrity is a creeping disease — invisible and insidious — that disables so completely that there’s often no recovery."

I hope that Dean Hardscrabble would agree.




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