Atomic essay #15 – I hate Michael Jordan

Whenever someone wants to convince students that they should be resilient and have a Growth Mindset (TM), Michael Jordan is there to assure them that even the greats fail, and that failure is a vital step on the road to success.

Atomic essay #15 – I hate Michael Jordan

You've probably all seen this quotation from Michael Jordan before. I've lost count of the amount of times I have: I've seen it in assemblies, on posters and in PowerPoints. Whenever someone wants to convince students that they should be resilient and have a Growth Mindset (TM), Michael Jordan is there to assure them that even the greats fail, and that failure is a vital step on the road to success.

I hate Michael Jordan. Not the man himself – I'm sure he's very nice – but his idea that I have to embrace abject miserable failure if I want to be excellent at something. I don't want to fail. I hate failing. It makes me feel rubbish. I don't care if I'll learn from it; I'd rather just be good.

I've failed this year. I tried to be Head of English at two different schools – one of which was the school in which I currently work – and I failed. Worse, I tried to become HoE at my school two years ago, and I failed then, too. It did not feel good.

I failed two years ago, too, to finish the Milton Keynes marathon. I'd successfully finished it two years prior to this, but on the most recent occasion my knee went at mile 15, and I limped off the course.

I fail every time I play the guitar. I know where my fingers are supposed to go and when they're supposed to go there, but they often don't do what they're supposed to do. In a sulk, I play easy songs that I can't get wrong. Sometimes I then get those wrong and I boycott the guitar, shooting poisonous looks at it for a few days, as though I've demanded it go outside and think about what it did.

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Although I hate failing, I have realised that failure is a matter of perspective. To say that one has failed is pretty final and implies that there will be no more chances of success. Worse is to identify as a failure oneself: not I have failed , but I am a failure . Whether we like it or not, the narrative of failure, the labelling of things as such, is a story we tell ourselves. We tell ourselves a sad story that we're rubbish because there's an odd masochistic comfort in it. We set goals because we want to be better and we think we want to teleport between now and success with no friction, no obstacles and no hardship.

Except I don't think that we do. I think that, if we look back, the things we're proud of were things that were hard. It wasn't really about having succeeded; that wasn't where the joy came from. The joy came from the work itself. The obstacles, the pain, the falling, the fear. Wrestling with the unknown. These are the bits that matter; these are the things we care about. If I think about something I've done that's successful, it's only ever framed by the lowest moment. When I think back to my successful marathon, the bit I remember was hitting The Wall and – somehow – not giving up.

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But I still think I learned more from the bad marathon.

I learned more from the failed interviews.

I learn from every missed note.

This doesn't make me feel better. I still hate failure. But it is important. In a narrative, most of what we watch is failure. Protagonist wants something, tries, fails. This happens again and again. It's only at the very end they succeed. We like our narratives like this because failing is so intrinsic a part of being human that we wouldn't know what to do with ourselves if it didn't exist.

I think MJ might be right. These failures are the things that end up shaping us.

But I still hate it.