Middle East Notes and Comment: In Praise of Failure
September 21, 2016
Today’s Middle East often seems more like a tragedy than a comedy, but an American comedian’s recent article in the New York Times contains a lot of wisdom that the Middle East could use.
Mike Birbiglia is not a household name. He is a standup comic who recently starred in a film about an improvisational comedy troupe. As he describes his own expertise, “I make small films, small one-man shows Off Broadway, and small comedy specials for Netflix.” He doesn’t come across as a guru.
Birbiglia writes that he is often asked how to be successful in comedy and suggests six tips. At least half are about failure. That’s unusual. We’re used to successful people telling us about their successes, not their failures.
Yet Birbiglia admits that he wrote 14 drafts of his first movie and 12 drafts of his second. He adds that his first five-minute set on “The Late Show with David Letterman” was a distillation of three hours of material he had been developing and discarding in open-mike nights in bars and comedy clubs for six years. For his most recent movie, he kept gathering his friends for pizza parties. When they were relaxed and happy, he pumped them for information about what they disliked in his scripts. Mike Birbiglia’s quest wasn’t to be told that he was good. It was to be told how he could be better.
As the Arab Human Development Report (AHDR), the World Bank, and others have observed, most Arab educational systems take a different approach. Arab schools’ approach is often didactic, the AHDR observed, “supported by set books containing indisputable texts, and by an examination process that only tests memorization.” In the words of the AHDR, Arab schools often seem to see “education as an industrial production process, where curricula and their content serve as molds into which fresh minds are supposed to be poured.” Often times, there is one thing to learn and one way to learn it. Their motivated students imitate, they do not innovate. Rarely do these students seek to learn from mistakes or use failure as a spur to novel action.
While Birbiglia’s approach differs from Arab schooling, his determination to experiment and fail constructively is consistent with youth sports culture in the United States. While the spotlight in that culture is on the winner’s podium, the broad societal impact is on the losers, the legions who commit themselves to work harder so the next time they are the ones who are the winners.
A generation ago, youth sports were a part-time hobby. Athletes played different sports in each season, relying on innate ability and playing experience to carry them through. Increasingly, children pick a single sport by the age of ten or twelve. They train single-mindedly for ten months a year or more, combining strength training, aerobic conditioning, and sport-specific skills training to hone their skills.
And even when they do that and become remarkable successes, failure is the norm. A spectacular hitter in baseball gets a hit about 30 percent of the time. An amazing soccer player scores on only a small fraction of shots on goal. There are some sports in which winners necessarily fail less than half the time—tennis, for example—but even a champion tennis player will lose dozens of points in a match.
The New Yorker writer Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that mastering any skill takes 10,000 hours of effort. Even if he was a little imprecise in his conclusions, success in many fields takes an awful lot of failure.
Many Arabs treat failure as a humiliation to be avoided, not a challenge to be overcome. And in recent years, some of the Arab Gulf states have been engaged in an effort to show that everyone is a winner, regardless of the effort expended. As in sports for very young children in the United States, everyone gets a trophy. Like the children in Lake Wobegon, everyone is presumed to be above average.
The approach may make some people feel better about themselves, but it’s unlikely to make them perform better. The approach seems directed toward making them comfortable. It does not seem intended to make them truly excellent.
The easy explanation is that this approach is merely a ploy to buy loyalty. Display loyalty to people so that they show loyalty in return. But that cannot be the whole story. Surely a part of these actions are intended to engender conservatism. Questioning assumptions, truths, and authority can be very disruptive. In the very near term, an individual and a society are almost certainly better off modeling behaviors on what has worked in the past.
Looking further forward, however, societies are almost certainly better off encouraging constructive failures. In part, a pattern of constant experimentation explores if even better outcomes can be obtained from present conditions. More importantly, though, experimentation creates a certain resiliency in societies that enables them to withstand future shocks.
It is easy to argue that the Middle East suffers from too much instability right now. But at the same time, too much stability in the region is perilous as well. As commodity pricing, demographics, and communications technology all change conditions in the region, governments and societies must find a way to be agile, not merely solid.
Birbiglia concludes his piece with the point that cleverness is overrated and heart is underrated. “Sometimes people say, ‘One thing you have to offer in your work is yourself.’ I disagree. I think it’s the only thing.”
Think about who is passionate about his or her cause in today’s Middle East. Think about who is constantly experimenting and learning from failure. Think about who is willing to really sacrifice for what he or she believes. It is not all of the people who are winning participation trophies. It is, instead, the people who want to disrupt the awards ceremonies. There is an important lesson in that.