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Jewish World Review Oct. 1, 2002 / 25 Tishrei 5763

Steve Young

Steve Young
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Consumer Reports

Merriam-Webster Needs To Rethink the "F" word | 'fail-ure': 1. the state or fact of being lacking or insufficient 2. a losing of power or strength; weakening, dying away. 3. not doing; neglect or omission. 4. not succeeding in doing or becoming. 5. person who does not succeed.

Pretty darn negative, don'tcha think? It's like failure is a bad thing. And it seems like there's plenty to substantiate it.

In baseball, if someone strikes out with the bases loaded, we boo. In show biz, if a person's stage performance is poor, we pan it. In school if a student takes a test and gets 40 correct out of 100 questions, they receive a failing grade.

40 out of 100. That's close to 40%. Of course it should be failing. 40 % stinks. Webster's knows what it's talking about, right?

But what about the Major League baseball player who gets 40 hits every 100 times he bats. What is he, besides non-existent? That hypothetical .400 hitter would be one of the best-- if not the-- best baseball player of all time. Not much of a failure, huh?

Merriam-Webster must be wrong. Perhaps. What about the scientist whose research takes him through countless experiments to finally bring him to his finding? Were all his unsuccessful trials along the way failures?

Would Merriam-Webster call them failures? By definition, yes. Now does Merriam-Webster know what its talking about? Perhaps not. My point? Failure has gotten a bad rap. And it's not only Merriam-Webster's fault. We're all responsible. And because of this we are wasting one of mankind's greatest resources...failure. And it's the fear of risking those resources that's killing the possibilities!

“He who never makes mistakes, never makes anything.”

                        —   English Proverb

Not all, but many parents, teachers, coaches, business supervisors, religious authorities, and critics of all sorts have been responsible for dulling aspirations and destroying dreams. Many mistakes are proclaimed failures and subsequently punished, leaving many of us afraid to take risks. All too often, these evaluations and severe disciplines are brought about in misguided attempts to correct and improve the individual. More than likely, the opposite results.

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Then there are the so-called failures of the body; those who have been born physically or mentally challenged, or became so through sickness or accident. They may have been told that they were no longer capable of doing what they had done before; or that they shouldn't even think about trying something for the first time, lest they be disheartened or hurt.

Thank Heaven for the likes of Stephen Hawking and Christopher Reeve.

History is full of ideas and events thought to be faulty or complete duds which ended up becoming boons to mankind. Do I really need to mention Thomas Edison's efforts or the discovery of Silly Putty?

“ If an experiment works, something has gone wrong..”

                        —   Finagle's First Law

We must appreciate that our life is a process made up of infinitesimal experiences and moments all fashioning us into who we are today. If we continue to breathe, our missteps, errors and misunderstandings are absolutely necessary for growth. They are the life-lessons that are essential for progress and enrichment. Without them, we would stagnate and wither away.

We learn nothing from perfection. It feels good for the moment, but it doesn't teach us a dang thing. Never did. Never will.

Do babies come out of the womb walking and talking? Not many. Are they criticized for falling down when they begin to walk? I hope not. They are in fact cheered and, with major huggies all around, encouraged to try again. After innumerable tumbles and assorted boo-boos, they're soon up and running everywhere. Does a baby feel that he or she should have done better or learned faster? No, because a baby has no expectations (except maybe for the anticipated tranquility a well placed thumb brings).

What the child did was what she did and when she did it is when it was supposed to be done. And that, ladies and gentleman, is how it works best.

When did we begin to deem it appropriate that devaluing ourselves by not meeting some quasi-standard was the proper way to live? And why can't Dr. T. Berry Brazelton be here for us too, the over-five generation?

“ Defeat should never be a source of discouragement, but rather a fresh stimulus.”

                        —   Robert South

We may want to haul off and pound the next person who says, "What doesn't kill us, makes us stronger," but Nature handles failure and obstacles...naturally. We call it evolutionary adaptation.

As we organisms (human and otherwise) evolve, the stresses faced by our ancestors have caused our bodies to change in order to handle environmental needs. In effect, our bodies know how to react to adversity intuitively. It would make sense that our brains and our hearts are equipped to do the long as we choose to "get out of the way."

Biologically, while pain would seem to be anything but good news, we would never know there was something wrong in our bodies if it weren't for the pain. It's Nature's wake up call.

Life's solutions don't come down the chute gift wrapped and ready to be opened any time we decide they should be. We have no idea if the very next effort won't provide us with our success. So why do we decide to quit before we reach our objective? Why do we let a single failure stop us?

Had Thomas Edison quit because coal, carbon, and other tested materials didn't ignite his bulb, you might be able to read this only during the day. He stuck with it, each attempt bringing him closer to the discovery that tungsten would do the trick. But stuff does happen and we sometimes must suffer through our failures, right? Not necessarily.

Any situation stops being a failure as soon as we attempt to learn from it. And we don't even have to actually learn anything. The attempt alone is enough. Once you've taken the action, the constructive process has already begun. And that activity begets more activity. And here's a profound thought: When you stop or quit, nothing happens.

“ A diamond cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.”

                        —   Chinese Proverb

What occurs when you receive a negative evaluation? It probably feels lousy. But if your desire is to enhance your life, dig through that review to see if there's something in it that can help you improve. Even if the reviewer is a fool, he might have stumbled onto something of relevance to you. After you take what you can use, THROW OUT THE REST! It serves no purpose. Do not give it any power. Take the lemons and make lemonade. Take the leftover lemon rinds, grind them up in your food processor, and use them as fertilizer.

Failure is not always of our own making. Other people and events can disappoint us. Even our own bodies and health fail us from time to time. But no matter the source of the failure, it is vital to understand that it is our attitude towards the situation that makes all the difference. So it is that we must change our attitude towards imperfection and force Webster to include one more element to their definition of failure: "a stepping-stone to success." But how do we do this? How does a word get amended?

The answer that the Merriam-Webster editors are liken to say is "usage." Each day Merriam-Webster editors read books, newspapers, magazines, the Internet...everything. They look for new words and new meanings of existing words attempting to determine regular usage. A word's new meaning must be used in a wide range of publications over an appreciable period of time for them to make any revisions to a word's definition.

Here's my plan. When your favorite basketball player misses a free throw, cheer him. If your son or daughter does poorly on a test, find out what parts he did well, no matter how slight, and start building from there. No matter what you do for a living, even if you're not a writer, be positive and always refer to the word "failure" as "a stepping stone to success."

This is not about coddling. This is about building. Building from the bricks already fashioned; using what we know. It's about making a plan. It's about starting from a place of strength, not some unattainable wish. This isn't about feeding into victimhood. This is about giving hope. It's about possibilities.

“ Men succeed when they realize that their failures are the preparation for their victories. ”

                        —   Ralph Waldo Emerson

So get out there all you parents, be you writer, teacher, plumber, broker, used car salesman or be it just you. Write it. Say it. Believe it. Open your windows, stand on your rooftops, clear you throats and let Merriam-Webster knows in no uncertain terms, "I'm mad as hell and and I'm not going to take it any more. Failure is "a stepping-stone to success!"

JWR contributor Steve Young, Prism Award winner and Humanitas Prize nominee for his television writing, is contributing editor at the Writers Guild of America's "Written By" magazine. He is the author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful: Mistakes, Adversity, Failure and Other Stepping Stones to Success". His website is Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Steve Young