The Courage to Fail

The experience of getting things wrong is the incentive for getting them right.

~ Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.

Getting through nursing school is no small feat, I assure you.

If you’re a nurse yourself, you already know that, right? You remember what nursing school was like: The massive tomes you had to lug around, let alone read; the exams and skill check-offs; the ungodly clinical hours; the grumpy (sometimes) instructors; and, of course, getting acclimated to the (shall we say) “messiness” of day-to-day nursing.

But that’s too simple, too obvious. There’s way more to it, you see. The big picture of nursing education involves much more than simply piling up proficiencies and passing tests – like life itself, really.

I thought about that recently when a friend of mine who is applying to nursing school wrote for advice. Here’s what she wrote:

I am working on my nursing application, and the personal statement requires that I elaborate on qualities that will contribute to my success as a professional nurse. I thought it would be a good idea to ask some professional nurses what it takes, so could you send me a line about what first comes to mind? That would be much appreciated.

Great question, right? If you’re intent on subjecting yourself to the rigors of nursing school, it makes sense to find out what it takes to be a successful nurse.

I wrote back, of course, but before I get to that, I want to share three brief vignettes – three images that capture different dimensions of my answer. All three are from National Public Radio – no surprise there. NPR is on in my car all the time, and I ruminate on the stories over and over as I drive around town.

And, as it turns out, the first story happens to be about driving. It was an interview with reporter Matt Richtel about his book, A Deadly Wandering. Richtel addresses the limits of the human brain, our obsession with gadgets, and the dangers of distracted driving – especially texting while driving.

Everybody texts these days – that’s a given. Even so, responsible drivers avoid texting while driving, and it’s what we teach our teens when they’re learning to drive – total text abstinence behind the wheel or driving privileges revoked, right?

OK, here’s where I think I have an advantage: – never have; never will. I’m kinda’ proud of that (can you tell?), and I know there are a lot of associated disadvantages, but here’s one definite advantage: When I’m teaching my teens to drive, I don’t have to worry about being called out as a texting hypocrite. For if I don’t text at all? Then they’ll never see me text and drive – case closed!

Of course, there are other mistakes we make as drivers besides texting, and I’m not going to pretend that I’m a perfect driver. However, I’ve managed to get two kids driving without ending up in jail, a lawsuit, or the hospital, and the third is in process – it’s always an adventure, but it’s going well despite my imperfections.

And that’s the key, isn’t it? When you’re teaching someone to drive, you have to accept the fact that the student will make mistakes – which is why professional driving instructors have their own steering wheels and pedals – but you also have to acknowledge that you yourself aren’t immune to error either.

In fact, without the risk of making mistakes, nobody would ever learn to drive. You can only do so much in simulators or the classroom. At some point, you have to be out in traffic, surrounded by other vehicles, and taking the chance that the other guy will do something wrong – or that you will. That’s how new drivers – and nurses, and all of us – learn, and my role as an instructor includes making room for error while safeguarding against the errors that lead to catastrophe.

This idea was reinforced by another interview I heard on NPR – this time with Ed Catmull, the co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios. You’ll remember Pixar as the folks who brought us Finding Nemo, A Bug’s Life, and the Toy Story movies. Catmull’s book is entitled Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming The Unseen Forces That Stand In The Way Of True Inspiration, and what do you guess is his fundamental recommendation? Here’s Catmull in his own words:

People understand that failure is part of learning – it’s like we all get that. But we have a problem: There’s another meaning of failure. That’s the one we learned in school, which was that you weren’t smart enough, you didn’t work hard enough, or you screwed up. So we have these two meanings of failure, and they both exist inside of us. The result is that we tend to interpret failure as a necessary evil. We have to address that head-on – to say, no, failure is not a necessary evil, it is a necessary consequence of doing something new. If you don’t fail, then you’re actually screwing up in a much bigger way.

Did you catch that? Catmull is one of the most successful people in the movie biz, and he’s arguing that if he’s not goofing up, then he’s missing the boat big time. It sounds paradoxical, but it makes sense: If we’re not making mistakes, then we’re not experimenting and exploring new ideas and trying out alternative ways of doing things – what they used to call, “thinking outside the box.” Maybe it would be better to call it: Breaking free from the fear of failure.

And that brings me to my third NPR story. I missed it when it aired, but one of my students – someone sitting right down here – shared it with me. It’s a bit hard to believe, but it seems that an assisted living facility in California shut down suddenly a year or so ago, and the residents who remained were literally abandoned.

Abandoned, that is, except for two employees – cook Maurice Rowland, and janitor Miguel Alvarez – who stayed on, without pay, to serve the residents until help arrived three days later. Here’s how they described their experience:

MAURICE: There was about 16 residents left behind. And we had a conversation in the kitchen – what are we going to do?

MIGUEL: If we left, they wouldn’t have nobody. We were just the cook and the janitor. But I was cleaning people up, helping them take a bath.

MAURICE: I was passing out meds. My original position was the cook. But we had like people that had dementia. I just couldn’t see myself going home…. Even though they wasn’t our family, they were kind of like our family for the short period of time.

A couple things to notice here. First, this janitor and cook: Were they not nurses those few days, despite their lack of training and credentials? Their devotion and loyalty overcame whatever fear they had of making mistakes, and they took a risk, and they acted.

That’s one thing; here’s a second: It was my student who brought this story to my attention. It was a student nurse who found it inspiring and instinctively recognized that she shared an affinity with Maurice and Miguel. All of them – the cook, the janitor, my student – had integrated a vision for care and compassion that went well beyond jobs or exams or graduation.

So, back to my friend who was applying to nursing school. After everything I’ve just said, you probably have a pretty good idea what I told her. Nevertheless, for the record, here’s what I wrote:

I think a successful nurse is one who isn’t afraid to fail. That failure can take many forms – failure to care, failure to rise above fatigue and personal problems, failure to catch everything and know everything.

In short, a good nurse has to accept the fact that she’s human, and plan accordingly. To paraphrase Mother Teresa, expect to get things wrong sometimes, but try anyway; expect to be misinterpreted, but reach out anyway; expect to be hurt, but pour yourself out anyway.

What’s true for nurses in this regard is true for all of us, don’t you think? As we go about our lives, striving for holiness, seeking God’s guidance, attempting to do good, desiring to grow in faith, isn’t it risky? We could screw up! We could fail!

Nevertheless, take courage. It’s worth the risk.


Author’s note: This was adapted from an address to first-year nursing students at their Nursing Dedication ceremony, Bethel College, Mishawaka, IN (24 January 2015).


Rick Becker is a husband, father of seven, nursing instructor, and religious educator. He serves on the nursing faculty at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. You can find more of Rick’s writing on his blog, God-Haunted Lunatic, and his Facebook page.

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