Algebraic Sexism and the Wisdom From Failure

Yesterday I identified the problem:

Modern self-helpism is built upon this little self-aggrandizing untruth: Failure can be avoided if you apply the right formula, my formula.

We see this self-helpism at work in the world around us, on Twitter, Facebook, the bookstore shelves (even in the Christian Living section of said bookstore). Success sells. Beauty sells. Self-actualization sells. Pristine spirituality sells. Here's what doesn't sell quite so well--failure. Isn't failure a prerequisite to growth, though? And though I've spun a few thousand words about the more grandiose failures of my own life in Coming Cleanit's not just the big failures that shape us, that modify our courses and help us grow. It's the little ones, too.

In the tenth grade, my honors algebra teacher, Mrs. Cokely, was a stickler for details. During our second semester, she introduced a sort of algebraic equation that required something on the order of 342 steps to complete, and any misstep along the way produced a result on par with absurdity. There was, of course, a simple process by which the answer could be derived with the push of a few buttons on a $100.00 calculator. Mrs. Cokely, though, was intent on teaching us the steps of calculation. She confiscated our calculators, said they were contraband of the highest order and set us down the path of complexity with little more than a pencil and a ream of graph paper.

"You need to work the steps, suffer the failures, understand the why before I return your calculators," she said. It was failure that produced true understanding, knowledge. This was her deepest belief.

As any good teacher should, Mrs. Cokely did not confine her wisdom to the realm of mathematics. During that same frustrating semester, my friend and cheerleader, Sydney, was delivering a note from the principal. She walked through the door, and brash as I was (unpolished, you might say), I might have whistled to get her attention. That whistle may have been mistaken by Mrs. Cokely for a cat call on account of the fact that it was (in fact) a cat call, and the mathematician with a penchant for rule-enforcement turned fire-engine red. When Sydney left the room, Cokely stood, rigid as a yardstick, silent as one, too, and she pointed to the hall.

In the hall, she backed me against the lockers with her bony pointer. "Do you know what sexual harassment is?" she asked. I hemmed and hawed some unsatisfactory non-answer. Mrs. Cokely laid down the law. "Sentences, Seth. You will write, 'I will not sexually harass the cheerleaders,' 300 times, or I will fail you."

She'd identified my lack of character, my failure, and if I didn't accept the punishment for that failure, she'd fail me again. [tweetherder]Failure unrecognized leads to more failure.[/tweetherder] This is the lesson Mrs. Cokely hoped to teach me. The lesson stuck.

This is the truth about failure: it shows us the areas of our shortcomings, teaches where we've miscalculated or overstepped. It's the recognition of that failure, whether in the miscalculation of algebraic equation or the acting out of macho sexism, that teaches us to refine our process, to correct our course. It's the showing of our work, the outing of our own embarrassing histories of failure that gives us the credibility to share the wisdom of our personal growth in a more refrined way.

Words approximating wisdom but built on the flim-flam of feel good self-helpism are worthless. Wisdom gleaned from failure after failure after failure--there's the gold. So, I'm making this request to the formula-peddling self-helpers (Christian and otherwise): [tweetherder]Don't just sell me your answers; show me your work.[/tweetherder]

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The Truth About Failure

We live in an era of bite-sized wisdom, of perpetual self-help, of too many mini-gurus. Yesterday, I cruised Twitter for less than thirty seconds, and in that thirty seconds, I found all the answers to life's pressing problems. Allow me to recap. Mini-Guru No. 1 shared how I might maximize my profit by working less and living more.

Mini-Guru No. 2 offered a pinnable platitude (a cliche, really) about who-knows-what-? by stringing together an embarrassing number of pseudo-Christian words that were meant to inspire my faith.

Mini-Guru No. 3 instructed me on the "6 Ways to Avoid Delayed Adulthood," an article that was strong on motivation and short on substance.

[tweetherder]This is the way of so much of our media these days--strong on motivation and short on substance.[/tweetherder]

(Let's drop the pretense. I'm just calling it like I see it. Straight, no chaser.)

It's a motivator's market these days, and the market is always open. People have questions. These gurus have answers (or so they claim). Answers are marketable things.  But is it really as simple as the internet motivators say? Can I maximize profit without work? Can faith be inspired without substance? And how can any ill be cured in Six Simple Steps (Patent Pending)? The question governing all of these questions was asked by my internet acquaintance Myles Werntz:

This brings me to the problem, a problem I'll unpack a little more this week.

THE PROBLEM Modern self-helpism is built upon this little self-aggrandizing untruth: Failure can be avoided if you apply the right formula, my formula.

Hope as you might, following cliche after cliche will not help you avoid the pain of failure. Personal. Professional. Moral. Spiritual. Failure will happen. This isn't a truth that sells well in the market, but that doesn't make it less true. So, this week I hope to convince you to bypass so much of the guru-spun motivational gobbledygook of the day and to take an honest inventory of your failures.  I hope to convince you that this inventory of failures is where true growth starts. Personal. Professional. Moral. Spiritual.

Where should we start, though? How about here: today, scroll through Twitter, Facebook, your favorite lifestyle magazine, and identify the mini-gurus, the people who'd give you easy answers to very complicated issues. What substance are they offering? Any?

 

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