Failure Is as Important as Success in a Career

Looking back from my ninth decade, my career as an educator has been marked by many successes. But I cannot (and will not) forget my failures.

I began teaching high school in 1955, a goal I had pursued as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh. I taught 14 years on and off in various school districts until the early-1970s. During those years I participated in an innovative, district-based teacher training program that prepared returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban schools. I also created culturally diverse curriculum materials and co-authored a series of U.S. history textbooks both of which were published in those years.

Left teaching in 1972 to get a doctorate at Stanford in history of education and in 1974 achieved my dream of becoming a district superintendent. I served seven years. I returned to Stanford as a professor in 1981 and for 20 years taught seminars, advised doctoral students, returned to high school teaching three times, and did research and writing until I retired. Since then, I began a blog in 2009, taught university seminars until 2013, and have written extensively about the history of school reform while continuing to do research in public schools. I have published many articles and books about U.S. classrooms, schools, and districts always with a historical perspective whether it be teaching, using technology, or current reforms.

OK, this is beginning to sound like a draft for an obituary. It is not.

What I want to write about are not my successes but my failures. While on the surface my long career as an educator appears as an unvarnished success albeit a modest one, it was a zig-zag path with cul-de-sacs and, truth be told, pockmarked with failure.

Why note failures?

Because successes in life, however defined, are built on failures that often go unnoted. The common pattern in talking or writing about a career is to deny or cover up failures. Carefully prepared resumes are silent on mishaps. The point is that everyone’s career is marked by failures but in our competitive, highly individualistic culture, talking about failure is like talking about body odor. Not done. Failure means you are a loser in a society that praises winners.

So here I want to recount my career failures to make clear that chasing success in one’s life is anchored in confronting repeated failures. I am not the first to reveal such a list. Others have as well (see here).

Failures as a teacher:

*In 1955, I graduated from the University of Pittsburgh as a history teacher. I applied for a post in the Pittsburgh school system where I had lived and gone to elementary and secondary schools. I was rejected because I had no experience and was told to teach in the suburbs for a few years and then re-apply. I did teach elsewhere but never re-applied to the Pittsburgh schools.

*Even though I was considered a high-performing teacher by my superiors at Glenville High School (Cleveland, OH), Cardozo High School and Roosevelt High School (Washington, D.C), between 1956-1972 I had a small number of students in various classes that I could not reach or teach well. It was obvious to me and to those students that I failed in connecting with them.

Failures as administrator:

*In 1968 while teaching at Roosevelt High School in Washington, D.C., I was offered a post in the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights to be in charge of a research group on race and education. It was a time in the city and nation when racial antagonisms ran high in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. After six months, I realized that I could not reduce the racial friction evident in my department. I had failed to make a dent in lowering tensions and achieving the stated goals of the unit. I resigned.

*In 1972, I applied for an elementary school principalship in Washington, D.C. where I had taught and administered programs for nearly a decade. I was turned down for that post.

*After receiving my doctorate in history of education and getting certified as an administrator, I applied for 51 (not a typo) superintendencies across the country. My wife and I and our two daughters were willing to go anywhere a district offered me the school chief position. I was turned down by 50 districts—the one that hurt the most was a district to which I had not even applied. Arlington (VA)—the 51st application– offered me the superintendency in 1974.

*In 1985-1990, as a professor, I applied for six urban and state superintendencies and while making the short list, each board of education chose someone else.

*In the mid-1990s, I was a finalist for deanship at Stanford’s School of Education. Didn’t get post.

Failures in getting published:

While occasional articles I wrote and a book were published in the 1960s,  over subsequent decades, publishers and editors regularly turned down many submissions I had made. At one point for a manuscript I had written on Southern migrants moving northward before and after World War I, the rejections letters overwhelmed me and I shoved the manuscript into a bottom drawer.

When I began writing op-ed pieces on school reform in the 1990s, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times regularly turned down my work. The New York Times has never accepted an op-ed I wrote while the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times accepted one of every ten I submitted.

When I get requests for my resume or curriculum vitae, none of the above failures are listed.

Why is it important to talk about career failures?

This is the point where such accounts as mine throw in a few inspirational quotes about the importance of failing. Such as:

I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed. Basketball star Michael Jordan

Success consists of going from failure to failure without losing your enthusiasm.
Winston Churchill

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it.” Maya Angelou

But there is far more that is important to confronting career failures than citing maxims. Defeats were doors that closed in my face. Yet other doors opened.

There are many ways to respond to failure. For me, however, closed doors did two things. In some instances, I doubled down and persisted—50 rejections in applying for superintendent posts—in other instances, it nudged me to open doors that I had not considered–going from the failed attempt to manage a governmental research group riven by racial animosities to administering the Office of Staff Development in the Washington, D.C. schools or getting rejected for a principalship and deciding to pursue a doctorate.

Persistence and ambition are, of course, married to one another. Yes, I have been a go-getter in the early decades of my work as an educator. The cliché of “a fire in the belly” captures in large part what drove me through open doors. But it was doggedness in the face of errors and defeats, harnessed to that ambition, that help explain, at least to myself, the corkscrew path I have taken these past nine decades.

Now, that fire has been banked. Looking back at my career and the mix of successes and failures make clear to me how complex the interaction between wins and losses is. In remembering how failures tinged with success and successes tinted with failures have resulted in unplanned twists and turns, I remember, and smile, at an old saying:

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Failure Is as Important as Success in a Career

  1. Thanks for sharing your failures. Like most, I have had successes and failures. Knowing that you have had ups and downs put my career in perspective.

  2. Great post and reminder to us all!

  3. David Brazer

    I agree with Barry and Janice. I’ll add that I think it takes courage to be forthright about your failures and put them in perspective. Our competitive society makes it tough to be philosophical about failures without letting them eat you up from the inside. Inspirational, Larry.

  4. Grace M. Hoagland

    Larry this is wonderful – should be required reading in every graduate program. Your numbers are a cold slap of reality for aspiring grads and a testament to the power of persistence, resilience, passion. If the gods can get slapped down…. David Labaree has a beautiful essay re his own mix of luck and pluck, offering an invaluable perspective on success. Yours is even more inforgetable.
    Thanks! And thanks for your ongoing blog. I miss you and hope all’s well.
    Happy Thanksgiving.
    Gay

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  5. bepoem

    Thank you for sharing your personal experiences of the failures that led to your greater success. Tenacity in the face of adversity has served you well and given you a life filled with hope to serve others and enrich their lives.
    Brenda Ellis
    November 18, 2021

  6. Jeannette LaFors

    Larry, you have always been an inspiration to me — especially in the ways you model the importance of clear purpose, strive for excellence, reflect deeply, and use both “wins” and “losses” as valuable teachers. Thank you for sharing your insights and reminding us that our journey can be rich and fulfilling as we encounter failures along the way.

    With gratitude,
    Jeannette

  7. Andrew Perry

    Hi Larry, This idea of the value of “failure” is very helpful to consider and keep in mind. However, I think the examples you give can be more characterized as “frustrations” or “setbacks” than failure. When you apply for a position and do not get it, it is frustrating. It can be easy to be discouraged and give up rather than persevere. But when you are fired from a position, or denied tenure, or named in a civil suit, or maligned in a newspaper — these are things that I would characterize as “failure”. And when you move on and grow from these experiences I believe you can really say that failure is as important as success in a career. Andy Perry

    • larrycuban

      I appreciate your comment, Andy, and the clarifications you offered. You may well be correct in labeling them as “frustrations” or “setbacks” but, for me, I experienced them as failures. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

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