Disclaimer: This blog is not about science, which is my area of moderate expertise.
“Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” -George Bush
This is something we are all guilty of, myself included. As much as I try not to, I judge people based on their failures, without looking at things from their perspective, placing myself in their shoes, or considering the errors I have made and am yet to make in my own life.
A passage in “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life” recently got me started taking stock of my own imperfections. It described an experiment he conducted on himself, not a science experiment, but a sort of social/moral experiment. He had devised his own set of important character qualities. He referred to them as the principle virtues. They were: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquility, chastity, and humility. He devised a “system of self-improvement” in which he would focus on one virtue at a time, and he would mark his journal every time he failed to exercise the virtue. After a short period, he abandoned the system, because it was upsetting to see how flawed he was, and he went on to rationalize that some of his flaws were rooted in the same traits that were best about him. So I began to ask myself what my own flaws and virtues are. I want to focus on the flaws for now.
I am flawed, just as most of us are. I have lied, I have cheated, I have been selfish, I have violated most of the 10 commandments, and throughout today, I will likely be guilty of each of the seven deadly sins. Probably as a result of shortcomings in the quality of my character, I have experienced some spectacular failures. I thought I was going to play pro soccer. That didn’t work out. While I was president of my fraternity, we were basically constantly in trouble. Throughout undergrad, I was a terrible student and ended up with a pretty bad GPA. As a swim lesson instructor, I once lost my temper with a kid and pulled him down to the bottom of the deep end (in fairness… I warned him that would happen….). During graduate school, I had a failed engagement, two arrests and one conviction. And these are not acknowledging the more everyday failures. I cannot count the number of times I have let someone down due to laziness, or I have gossiped about someone, drank too much, or simply not had appropriate concern for other people’s feelings.
Mostly in private, I embrace my more spectacular failures as learning experiences. Any one of my big failures have been more valuable to me in developing my character than all of my successes put together. The fear and sense of powerless that comes out of really failing badly taught me to lean on others and that has made me a much more effective leader. Recognizing that the character traits that were most responsible for my successes also lead to failures taught me to embrace dissent. Now, I actively seek out people that will tell me I am wrong, because it forces me to sharpen my thoughts and reflect on reasoning and motivation.
Still, while attempting to embrace those failures in my own mind, and in the company of close friends and family, I have been afraid of the judgement that comes from exposing the worst of me to others. I was recently forced to confront this, because for my new job, I was required to do a background check. The results haven’t come back yet, but when they do, my new employers will see one misdemeanor dismissal and one misdemeanor conviction in my criminal history. Luckily, it is nothing that should affect my employment, but I worry about how it will affect how my new bosses look at me, how they treat me, and how the value my opinions, both professionally and personally. The background check is an institutional embodiment of my fears about my past failures. It is designed for people to judge you based on your worst examples. I would like to be able to embrace those failures without allowing them to define me. I would like to embrace them to the extent that I can be open about them and use them as teaching tools so that others can learn from my mistakes.
It seems that society thinks it wants people to learn from their errors and improve themselves. It seems that society thinks it wants people to learn from the errors of others and improve themselves in that manner as well. In contradictory fashion, however, we continue to define people by their worst examples and treat failure in a way that makes people afraid to even acknowledge it exists.
My hope is that the few of you who read this, will not make excuses for my failures, but can acknowledge them without defining me by them. And maybe if this is possible with me, we can all be more accepting of the failures of others. We can embrace our own failures and the failures of others as opportunities to learn, without allowing failures to define us.