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Common Reading 2022: Failure is Not an Option by Allison Carr

Failure is Not an Option — Allison Carr

Allison Carr's chapter comes from a book called Bad Ideas About Writing. True to that title, Carr argues in “Failure is Not an Option” that this mindset is a harmful one, pushed onto people by prevailing cultural narratives. Carr states that our culture sees failure as something that is to be avoided, an indicator of a flawed individual. She argues that failure, instead, should be seen as something to pursue - something that demonstrates creative, innovative thinking. Pulling from research on writing processes, psychology, and her personal experience, Carr demonstrates that failure is natural, important, and necessary for learning and growth.

Text Link

(The chapter starts on page 76 of the book, which is page 87 in the pdf.)

Discussion Questions

1. How might Carr’s message relate to your major? In what ways might you risk failure in pursuit of creative, risky thinking? 

2. Carr believes that the wider cultural belief that failure is “bad” needs to change. What obstacles would impede this wider change? What systemic changes would have to be made? (Think in terms of you, the community around you, and your future career.) 

Class Activity

1. Carr discusses different innovations that were discovered by accident, including “penicillin, Corn Flakes, Post-it Notes, Corningware, WD-40, oral contraception, and potato chips.” Pick one of these innovations, or find your own accidental discovery, and research the circumstances of that innovation. How badly did the inventor fail? What were they trying to do? How off were they? What did we gain instead?

2. Interview someone (a friend, family member, teacher, professor, etc.) about a past failure that they encountered. What was their response to that failure? Was it positive or negative? Why? Do they have any lingering feelings about that failure? 

Introduction — Craig Stark

Dr. Allison D. Carr states that the process of writing requires failure in order to succeed. For several reasons discussed in Dr. Carr’s essay however, we seem to have trouble understanding this as writers. Failure has a negative connotation obviously—very rarely do we get out of bed wanting to fail—but this negativity really should be turned around. Failure is (and can be) beautiful. At its essence, failure is progress. Without failure there is no risk, no growth, no renewal, and ultimately no progress. 

Dr. Carr states that we’ve been conditioned to believe that failure is not an option; that success is the only path and that success has to happen on the first try. How can anyone live like this? Some of humankind’s greatest works of art and writing have come from failure. Yet we continue to put down failure as if it makes us weak or ineffective. 

Failure happens. There are no “final drafts”—there is only the current draft. And it’s good that failure happens because it shows the process works. When failure happens, it is best dealt with by being acknowledged, understood, respected, and accepted as part of the process. 

Some questions to consider: Can you think how understanding the process can help you explain that failure is necessary to someone who critiques your work? What advice would you give to someone who considers themselves a failure in their work? How would you explain failure as part of the process? 

"HISTORY OF IDEAS - Failure" - The School of Life

About the Author

Allison Carr is an assistant professor of rhetoric and the Director of Writing Across the Curriculum at Coe College. Beyond researching the intersection of failure and emotion for her doctoral dissertation, Allison considers herself a failure savant, leading her students by example toward riskier, frightening, and sometimes downright stupid undertakings. She tweets about food, politics, writing, and baseball. 

Additional Resources

Click here to see some more videos from FailCon!

To check out some more inventions discovered by accident, click here. The article details the intention (or lack thereof) behind these inventions and how they were accidentally discovered.


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