In the universe of Howard Tayler’s Schlock Mercenary webcomic (and now in our own mundane universe) there exists a book called The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries. Maxim 70 is: “Failure is not an option – it is mandatory. The option is whether or not to let failure be the last thing you do.” In the last few years I’ve been thinking a lot about failure, and that final maxim.
When I was a kid, my teachers were calling me a genius, backed up by the problematic standards of the Stanford-Binet IQ test. In high school I was in a special program that got us through the first four years of high school in three, followed by a normal 5th year (back when there were 13 grades in Ontario). I went on to complete a four-year honours University degree in three years – and without Advanced Placement high school courses, which didn’t (and don’t) exist in Ontario. I got accepted into one of the top three North American PhD programs in my field (Computer Science). After a brief time in industry, I got a job as an Assistant Professor at a respected Canadian university.
All of that looks like success. But there were failures, too. One of my math teachers decided I needed to be taken down a peg and assigned me the task of deducing Newton’s law of gravitation from Kepler's laws of planetary motion. He was inordinately proud of himself for giving me something I couldn’t do – but he also knew I didn’t know enough of the right kind of math to solve it. That’s why failure is mandatory: if you never fail, you’re not challenging yourself enough.
There were other failures. My grades in first year university ranged from 98 in first-year calculus to 44 in second-year statistics; I got a 74.4% average and I lost my scholarship. But that was from facing big challenges, too: I was taking 10 courses instead of the normal 6, since I’d tested out of the three first year math courses, but took them anyway, plus one extra. I also faced all the challenges a 17-year-old away from home for the first time might have, and that hurt my grades.
In grad school I look 7.5 years to finish a PhD (spread over 9, because of a year and a half off in industry). When I was finishing my thesis research, my supervisor commented he hadn’t thought I could work that hard. But this was a rich grad school that could afford to pay stipends for that long, provided the student was “making adequate progress,” so I managed to face several interesting challenges that were in some sense diversions from my supposed main goal of getting a doctorate.
But later, there were more troubling challenges. After a 15-year hiatus due to chronic depression, it is now very unlikely that I can meet the publication requirements for promotion to full professor before health and age force me to retire (which, I hope, won’t be for a few years yet). From the perspective and expectations of my youth, that feels like failure.
And so I come back to Maxim 70. I have a few years left to teach and make a contribution to the lives of some more students. I’m slowly catching up on advances in my field since the start of my disability leave. But the thing that fills me with hope is my writing. I wrote two technical books over the years, one published traditionally, one distributed for free over the Internet. And, as I’ve blogged earlier this month, I’ve been learning to write fiction, which I expect to continue into retirement. And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll get a novel published.
Failure definitely isn’t the last thing I’ve done.