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Tabor Williams

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Failure should be respected for those trying to accomplish something

Failure tends to lead to some of the greatest discoveries and advancements. Failure now tends to be fail blogs, epic fail, etc. And yet some of the best advancements came from repeated failure. Thomas Edison tried for years before finally perfecting the lightbulb.

When did failure become this huge shameful thing that we want to hide? Even great people like Abraham Lincoln couldn't run a supply store, and yet he became the President of the United States. People don't like to fail because everyone wants to succeed on their first try, but that is seldom the case. Failing teaches us resiliency, and gives us strength.

Topics: philosophy
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  • Oct 19 2012: Lets throw some realism into this conversation. There is failure, and there is failure.

    In 2007 a bridge, part of interstate highway I-35W, failed. It killed 13 people and injured 145, some very seriously. No one celebrated.

    An extreme example is not necessary to realize that failures on the scale of a few hundred dollars are not the same as failures that cost hundreds of millions. As you go up the scale, at some point your boss is not going to celebrate and you will get fired. We have recently learned that if your failure causes a global recession and costs trillions of dollars, your job is secure.

    This celebration of failure is not going to last very long because soon the people who are serious about making innovative progress in our new after midnight world are going to be studying and analyzing success and failure in new and innovative ways.

    The whole notion that failure is shameful and that we have always punished all forms of failure is nonsense. Trial and error is how we live. Failure when attempting invention and innovation is very different from failure at making a sales pitch. The do-it-yourself crowd has always shared failures just as readily as successes because they understand the value of learning to get it right. Mistakes by the young and inexperienced are commonly overlooked. Stupid rookie mistakes by experienced professionals working on routine problems will always be punished.

    Be careful in deciding which failures to celebrate.
    • Oct 19 2012: True .... I don't think that anyone celebrates when a bridge collapses due to human error. I was thinking in terms of learning from our mistakes as applied to more trivial shortcomings.
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      Oct 19 2012: (Quote): "We have recently learned that if your failure causes a global recession and costs trillions of dollars, your job is secure."

      Which is also a failure of placing the entire blame for a failure on one person or one specific group of people for the overall failure. Everyone who bought a house as a "get rich quick" investment with an adjustable rate mortgage increase they never intended on being able to afford paying if the investment did not increase as they thought it would is just as much to blame.

      So let's "fire" all those "regular" people too. C'mon, Barry. Let's REALLY throw some realism into the conversation. The "regular people" who were foreclosed on made choices too. They could have kept their bad investment and kept paying for the house if they COULD have afforded to. Some of them couldn't afford to because they made bad decisions in the first place when buying the house and extending their debt in a manner they couldn't pay for it in the future. Or they just walked away from their "loss" saying, "I'm pissed! To heck with it, I'm just not gonna pay anymore!", like many of them did.

      If you are going to blame someone for something bad that happens, don't be selective on who you choose to blame. Include ALL the participants involved. That's much more "realistic".
      • Oct 19 2012: Yes ... I am with you Rick ... this financial collapse was a group failure that can be traced wayyyyyyyyyyyyyy back before the current leadership. So, there is a good lesson here to be learned about failure: The blame is not always accurately placed and often, as with the "global recession", there are many factors to point to.
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      Oct 19 2012: I do think that we should be careful in deciding which failures to celebrate because some can literally be a matter of life and death.
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    Oct 20 2012: Tabor,

    What I see is that when priority changed from "the struggle to achieve" to "its all about winning" is when failure became this shameful thing. It is a mindset that not all people share. The people who learn from their own failures do not let failure get in the way. It is when people lose sight of the goal that failure becomes an issue.

    We all know who the first man was to step on the moon. Do you know who the first man of the second crew was who stepped on the moon? Everyone wants to be first because second don't count. By the third Apollo mission, most people weren't even interested, until it became a fight to save three astronauts involved in a space accident.

    The Russians were the first in many space achievements. I read an article in Air & Space magazine Aug 07 where Russian engineers became disillusioned because their government didn't give them proper recognition. Resentment among the engineers led to lack of cooperation. This played a role in allowing United States to take the lead.

    I like Barry Palmer's answer. Failure that leads to human suffering should not be respected. Failure that leads to innovation is a horse of a different color. When people take risks that put others in danger, they are and should be responsible when people get hurt.

    Also, there is a difference between respecting failure and rewarding failure. When a CEO takes over a company, runs it into bankruptcy, and still walks away with a healthy financial portfolio, an injustice has been done to those who have lost their jobs. Unfortunately, arrogance and self-conceit often pays well in today's economy.
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      Oct 20 2012: There are failures of different kinds, and I obviously I think that one's which directly harm people shouldn't be respected. I do think that in this day and age everyone wants recognition, and they all want their fifteen minutes of fame.
    • Oct 21 2012: Good points Roy.
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    Oct 18 2012: I haven't seen this mentioned yet...

    One person's success may be judged by another person as a failure.

    We all have our own perception of success and failure when it comes to our own lives. Yet there will never be a shortage of people who will want to lable us as "failures" regardless of what we did.

    If you are happy in yor own life, you have succeeded. Don't let anybody else call you a "failure".
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      Oct 18 2012: Life is indeed about perception. But I feel like it's a tall order to remain steadfast in your views sometimes when everyone in your environment has an opposing view. In the vein of someone being told they're stupid, and eventually coming to believe it.

      Happiness is a individual pursuit, but that doesn't mean that it is necessarily achieved by on one's own.
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        Oct 18 2012: Gotta disagree with you, Tabor.

        First, if "everybody" else is indicating you probably failed, and you don't think you did, then it may be a bad perception on your part to begin with. Self-reflection may be necessary then.

        But rarely will "everybody" think you have "failed". In that case, you have to realize and accept the old saying, "You can't please everybody".

        I have a 13-year old car. My neighbor has a brand new SUV. My car does what it is designed to do...get me from point A to point B...just as well as his brand new SUV. He thinks I'm "crazy" for not owning a new car. I don't. I haven't made a car payment in 10 years...he has a $350/month payment on his SUV. I have more money in my personal accounts than he does, and he "struggles" and complains about the cost of things and the economy. So...who is a "failure" vs a "success"?

        It's all relative. If you "come to believe" everything other people say about YOUR success or failure, you have relinguished your POWER to them to decide your own happiness. Don't give anybody else the power that is inherently yours to decide if you are successful or not. As long as you aren't impacting THEIR life in a negative manner, you should be the one to decide about your own success or failure.

        Way too many people "follow the crowd" today because of "peer pressure". They let the peer pressure decide FOR them if they are successful or not.
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          Oct 18 2012: I wasn't talking about myself in the comment above, just someone I know. I do agree that happiness is in each individuals hands, and it is up to them to realize it. Perception is different for everyone.
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    Oct 22 2012: Hi Tabor,

    Have a look at Daniel Wolpert's talk about how we are, essentially, Bayesian adaptation machines.

    When you benchmark success on retrospective observations, you prevent the Bayesian system from cycling. The benchmark itself prevents acceptance of new observations.

    Part of the power of the Bayesian dynamic is error reduction. I like to see it as noise reduction, because most of the phenomena we encounter in the real world are chaotic - they might have very precise causality, but outcomes can become massively unpredicatable. When this happens, the signal-to-noise ratio occludes reliable causal action.
    However, another thing that the Bayesian dynamic does is to detect patterns in seemingly total noise. But it takes a lot of trial and error to do it.

    We, as humans, have this fiction that we can control the future by setting past observation into rules, laws and formulas.
    This has a general affect - but all that is retrospective is obsolete in teh face of current reality.
    Hence we see "outliers" in our observed data series.
    The world of static retrospection ignores teh outliers, but this induces a false understanding. If one takes the data series over much longer periods, one can see that the accepted causality is false. And then when you go even further, you will see outliers on the outliers. This suggests that causality will never be completely known.
    In the Bayesian adaptive model, it does not matter - if an acceptance of un-knowability is present, then we gain the capacity to percieve new things.

    To accomodate new things, we must adopt fault-tollerant methods to match the reality of our own brains. Do do otherwise is to invite disaster.
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      Oct 22 2012: That's very interesting, I'll definitely take a look at his talk. Thanks for the comment!
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    Oct 18 2012: It is true that persistence and determination should be respected.
    But one thing is clear: failure is never celebrated, and as far as society is concerned it is results that matter.

    It is thus the responsibility of an individual aiming at success to learn from his or her failures and to keep trying, instead of being too bothered about opinions and perceptions.

    The fact that someone has not achieved something grand does not make him or her a failure. What matters most in life is that one never gives up on a good thing; not just because there is a 'trophy' attached to it, but because the pursuit of something good brings out the best in us.
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      Oct 18 2012: I very much like your last paragraph. There may not always be a trophy, but it's about the pursuit. The pursuit of happiness.
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    Oct 17 2012: On a positive note. Life teaches you how not to do something when you fail. That is positive.
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      Oct 17 2012: Agreed! Once you fail it's about getting back up and learning from where you went wrong so that you can go down the right path.
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      Oct 17 2012: I really like that statement. Kind of like the sour and the sweet. Without having the sour, the sweet just isn't as sweet.
    • Oct 18 2012: That is a very true and accurate statement as if you just succeed at what you do without experiencing failure, you never have the opportunity to reconize the process of working toward sucess you just focus on the success.
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    Oct 16 2012: Check-out Babe Ruth's strikeout record.
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      Oct 16 2012: It just goes to show that in order to hit a home run in life, you have to be willing to strike out.
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    Oct 22 2012: Failure is very much alive and respected at FailCon, the yearly conference actually named after failure. Here's a link to this year's upcoming conference: http://www.meetup.com/Bay-Area-Aspiring-Entrepreneurs-Group/events/86206372. They say this at that link:

    You aren’t a real entrepreneur until you’ve had to deal with failure, and recovering from it - financially emotionally and practically - can be challenging. Hear how some major players in the industry have dealt with startup troubles recovered and kept a positive tenacious and energetic attitude through it all.
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    Oct 21 2012: ...continued...

    However, we can all agree that accounting for each and every “micro-variable” is impossible. Therefore, we can put this into math terms as well. If we know 250 different “micro-variables” exist that have an influence on our outcome we must account for as many as possible. This will ensure we take advantage of our “cause and effect” universe. As we gain what we need(n) and increase (h)…we will also increase (x) or success. However, failure (f) will always be a variable to include in your equations because we cannot know each and every variable that influences the success or fail ratio.
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      Oct 22 2012: I must say I'm impressed, you just broke it down mathematically.
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    Oct 21 2012: Failure is necessary sometimes. We can think of this in math terms...and uncover a real science behind success. Let's just say I wanted to start a business. We can transfer the value of you reaching a goal to X.
    X = What you have now(h) + What you need to have(n)
    (h)
    What you have now will contribute to your success based on the inserted value. We can determine the value of (h) by looking at your personal and material assets.
    A) Do you have reliable transportation?
    B) Do you understand business concepts/ethics?
    C) Do you understand the market you intend to target or people you need to network with.
    Let’s just say you have the car and have a good understanding of business…but have no idea how the market fluctuates or functions…and you have no real overhead or business connections. Let’s just say that’s about 40% of the knowledge or assets you need to have in order to succeed.
    h=40%
    n=60%
    (h) only increases when we focus on attaining the value of (n).
    In a room with no air flow or any other form of influence; If you dropped a ball with a weight of 1 pound from the same location in the room repeatedly you would generate the same flow of energy, or action, every time. However, if you added wind or other “micro-variables” the object would have to compensate for the additional influences.
    If we attempt to achieve a goal we must analyze these “micro-variables” in order to understand all realms of possibility within a given set of circumstances. When we can drill down and understand the most plausible answer, when associated with all available information, we can make better choices and lessen the rate of failure.
  • Oct 21 2012: Are their good and bad failure or is every failure a path way to success when u learn from your failures?
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      Oct 22 2012: I think what differentiates the two is how you approach failure, and what you take away or learn from it. Some will see certain failures in a good way, and some will see failures in a good way. I think ultimately though that you learn from each experience whether your realize it or not.
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    Oct 21 2012: It's late and I have not had time to read all the responses, so forgive me if someone has already point this out.
    Trying is the first SUCCESSFUL step in accomplishing anything. A friend of my closed his small coffee shop after three years. He confided in me that he felt "like a failure". I reminded him that he succeeded for 3 years. The nano attention spans of our society measure failure on unrealistic time frames and expectations.
    Which brings me full circle to my most important point on this subject. Your success or failure should be in your own eyes not other people's and success or failure is relative.
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      Oct 21 2012: Pretty sure some of the best thoughts come late at night! I agree that success and failure should be a gauged through each individuals eyes., I'm just also advocating a less judging community/society.
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    Oct 21 2012: Yes.
    To pursue success without failures is a kind of INVALID HAPPINES.

    It is almost impossible to succeed without first failures in almost all cases.
    So, “failure is the mother of success” and ought to be respected and cherished.

    Wrong?
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    Oct 20 2012: success and failtures are two concepts .and people havea different views about it ,some consider it important ,some not ,it dues to your surroundings ,how people around you treats faliture and success ,that decides how you treats .
  • Oct 20 2012: Failure should be respected and being wrong should be celebrated.
  • Oct 20 2012: Interesting stuff... Barry Palmer below stated the obvious. "There are failures, and there are failures."

    Big difference in learning from our smaller mistakes and those mistakes causing a major tragedy... Or is there?

    Others rushed into the obvious hole in his quote about the "job security" in causing a global recession from securitized mortgages to say that the "Overall failure" can't be blamed on one person or one group. Responsibility is another notion aside from finding the cause of the overall failure.

    "Overall failure". Well an outcome is not just a single event.... such as a bridge collapsing or the financial debacle in October 2008. As with everything in the universe, its way more complex than that in the whole, but the reality is also the eagle eye view, that any outcome is preceded by a series of smaller actions and events. From a human scale, large tragedies... well for most of us... we can't grasp the totality of all these actions, events, nor the individuals and groups behind them. 100's, 1000's, millions, billions, & trillions. We just cant get a handle on it... any more than we can the notion of an expanding universe with trillions of thermonuclear suns... so mankind invents God so we can deal with infinite boundless space and energy... and not go bonkers over it.

    There are always lines and sequences of actions and events leading up to the big event however. Follow the lines backward in a Big Failure and you may find that...

    For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
    For want of a shoe the horse was lost. And onwards to losing the Kingdom

    Global recession, who is to blame?. Follow it backwards and it you find interesting governmental actions were absolutely vital to allow securitization of mortgages and relaxed requirements. The 1935 Glass Steagall Act had it right... forbid the mixing of investment banking with commercial banking. The "Cult of DeRegulation" killed it... death by a thousand cuts. Failure by Greed.
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      Oct 20 2012: It's true that usually major failures or mistakes don't happen by themselves. instead they are either unperceived, or unheeded. I'm not saying that failure should be celebrated, rather it should be learned from so that we don't continue making the same mistakes that may lead to even bigger mistakes. It's about recognizing when something isn't working, and fixing it.

      Love the for want of a nail proverb!
      • Oct 20 2012: Tabor: "...instead they are either unperceived, or unheeded. "

        That's the nail on the head metaphor right there. Beginning with Bill Clinton in 1994, there were many, many small efforts to unseat Glass-Steagall and other good regulations that went unperceived and certainly unnoticed by the larger population. All of these small cuts led up to creating the securitization or mortgages that become the debacle we still are living.

        Was is a cult or a conspiracy behind those thousands of cuts... perhaps guided by some Star Chamber?

        The Occupy Movement doesn't quite articulate it this way, but when they rail on about "corporate greed" and "special interests" running America through buying politicians to change legislation favorable to the special interest goals... who would argue that's not far off. The reason they are special... is that these interests seek out from politicians is not usually favorable to the public good. There can't be two masters. The paymasters get the attention. Simple as that.

        Wall Street got what it wanted. Health insurance companies get what they want. Credit Card companies get what they want. And on and on... until someone forces campaign reforms onto Washington DC... nothing will change.

        There is the small mistake we should learn from. Greed fuels politicians because they cannot continue their jobs without massive campaign funds. Why do we allow this if we are learning from our mistakes? No one is seeing this clearly as the hinge point in the series of mistakes leading up to the big events.
        Sorry... just couldn't resist going with "nail on the head" :)
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          Oct 20 2012: Politics is always a hard issue for everyone. I do think there are successes and failures but overall I'm thinking about failure for the average person and what it means individually and for the individual in their environment as opposed to as a collective.
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    Oct 19 2012: Tabor, There is a increasing tendency for people to label everyone and everything. Failure in science or invention is a step in elimination and therefore a step closer to success. However, as Barry Palmer stated there are indeed failures that need to so reconized as such.

    The key is how you the individual see the "set back". If you believe it is a "failure" then you are defeated. However, if you learn from it, grow from it, and use it as a learning experience ... them I feel confident you will succeed.

    Best of luck in all your endeavors. Bob.
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      Oct 19 2012: I do think we're constantly growing from our successes and our failures, it's just about being able to realize and grow from them.
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    Oct 19 2012: only for people who try to achieve something by fair means..same goes for people who succeed..
    • Oct 19 2012: yes ... good point ... there are those who will "cheat" to win or steal the credit for the work of others.
  • Oct 19 2012: Yes ... this is so true. It seems that behind every great success lies a series of attempts, close misses and some outright failures. Wouldn't it be great if we could learn to steadily cheer on a person (ourselves included) not just when they win the prize but during each step of the race.
  • Oct 18 2012: Yes, but you still feel like crap.
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      Oct 19 2012: Haha indeed when you fail by your own standards, it does feel like crap.
  • Oct 18 2012: I'd like to share my takeaway from this conversation, and that is that failure is important to the process of learning. I'd extend that by saying that it is not really failure itself that is important but rather the design in which the failure occurred. Some trial frameworks are better than others, also some trial frameworks cater to certain people's strengths more than others. Data is important but the form of data differs depending on what problem is being tackled. So yes failure is important, but if you really want efficient and effective learning, prior-knowledge and existing skills need to be determined so that the proper learning scaffolds can be created to advance learning. Not simple at all...
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      Oct 18 2012: So then you think the form is one of the most important determining factors in what could be considered success or failure?
      • Oct 18 2012: Well yes, form and design of the learning trial both intrinsic and extrinsic. Apart from the importance of appropriatemethodologies, there are also tweaks that could increase the chance of success. If the aim was to teach reading decoding, the teaching of multiple strategies as tools is superior to just modelling. In a nutshell, not all curriculum is made equal.
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          Oct 18 2012: Ah I see what you're saying. I agree that not all curriculum is made equal.
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    Oct 18 2012: I totally agree because statistically failure is much more possible than success. And without failure most of the success is by chance. Most of the times you fail a lot and then learn from your mistakes get better and succeed.
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      Oct 18 2012: Maybe that's why Sylvester Stallone didn't beat Apollo Creed in Rocky, but he sure did in Rocky 2...
  • Oct 18 2012: This is one of the biggest mistakes both our educational institutes and companies make.

    To quote Sir Ken Robinson:

    “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” — Ken Robinson

    And just as he mentioned mistakes are the worst thing you can make and that this educates us out of our creative capability.

    If you missed his talk on TED I highly recommend you check it out:

    http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html
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      Oct 18 2012: Sir Ken Robinson's talk is very interesting. A friend of mine is really interested in the school system and how it affects learning and creativity.
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    Oct 17 2012: I was recently reading about what is being learned about failures through experiments.

    1: Potters were divided into two groups. One could make as many pots as they wanted, but could only turn in one pot for the final grade. The other group could make as many pots as they wanted, but they each had to turn in a minimum of 400 pounds of pots. Quality would not be judged. If students didn't turn in 400 lbs, they failed. The results were independently judged. It turned out that those who had only one pot, were so obsessed with what the perfect pot should look like, that none of the pots were judged in the best categories, whereas most of the 2nd group's pots were most highly prized. It turns out that the 2nd group learned quickly from its failures, and simply applied new-found learning in the next attempt.

    2) Another study found that testing students for what they do not know increases learning by 50% in 75% less time than testing for what students do know. (I'll try find the link if you're interested)

    3) Another study found that after a really difficult test about unknown things is given, the results were returned to students with one of two notes written on the test paper. One group received the message "You must have worked really hard on this. It shows". the other received the message "You're a natural at this. Very good". A week later they were tested again. Those who were told that they were "naturals" did 30% worse the 2nd time, while the first group did 50% better.

    4) Another gave students partial answers and asked them to fill in the blanks. (i.e. a division problem with a 3 integer answer, where 1st & 3rd #'s were given along with partial long division solving showing. Students learned division in a day that was usually taught in a whole year. They were allowed (encouraged?) to make as many mistakes as they had to, to learn how to solve the problem themselves - in groups.
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      Oct 18 2012: Sure send the link, I'd be interested in reading about it. These experiments sound very interesting.
  • Oct 17 2012: Exactly! What we need is a culture of not only tolerance and respect but also appreciation, empowerment and pro-activeness. Where are in need of a social design where individuals that make mistakes should be empowered to make corrections. Where there are mistakes, there are attempts, and attempts taken as a collective are vital to success. A culture of proactivity would rein in a generation of risk-taking problem solving oriented citizens. In school, we teach our students to utter words like "good try" and "better luck" next time, and give them the requisite skills to resolve conflicts and problem solve. But now that I sit here and type these words, I begin to ask myself, do I really appreciate failed attempts? I know I do, but am I able to convey the right set of non-verbal messages that really make the other person feel "inspired" for his or her unsuccessful trial. If I am any good at what I do, I think it has much to do with the increased opportunity that I have to practice this set of circumstances. But isn't it everyone's "job" to get better at conveying this message! "It's more than okay to fail! I fail too, a lot! But if you persevere, communicate and cooperate, I promise you that things will get better and one day we will succeed!"
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      Oct 18 2012: I may be a dreamer but I'd like to live in a world where people help each other succeed, and give others chances even if they've failed in the past. People shouldn't be completely written off for certain jobs or activities because they've failed in the past, and had no opportunity to try and learn from their mistake.