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Common Reading 2023: Failure is Not an Option by Allison D. Carr

Failure is Not an Option — Allison D. Carr

Listen to the podcast version of "Failure is Not an Option"

Allison D. Carr's chapter comes from the book Bad Ideas About Writing. True to that title, Carr argues in “Failure is Not an Option” that this mindset is harmful and pushed onto people by prevailing cultural narratives that say failure should be avoided. Instead, failure should be seen as something to pursue—something that demonstrates creative, innovative thinking and that is natural, important, and necessary for learning and growth.

Discussion Questions

1. How might you take creative risks and fail in your writing or in your major?

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, or your future career.)

Class Activities

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, professor, etc.) about a past failure 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 — Valerie Allison

Allison Carr challenges us to reconsider our attitudes about failure, particularly in relationship to how we see ourselves as writers and how we approach opportunities or obligations to write.

As a former secondary English teacher and a current educator of future teachers, I’m struck by how frequently I have heard students define themselves as poor or failed writers. And as Carr asserts, the frequency has only been made worse through federal educational policies (i.e., No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Every Student Succeeds Act) and related accountability measures (i.e., end-of-year testing) of the last two decades. If you, the students beginning this year at Susquehanna University, attended public schools, the ways in which you were taught to write were probably influenced (perhaps a lot) by your teachers’ concern over how you would perform on standardized writing assessments.  As a result, you may not have been encouraged to take risks and experiment in your writing. In fact, the message might have been conveyed (intentionally, or otherwise) that good writing hits all the points on the rubric in a prescribed manner and that good writers are those who follow directions with fidelity.

How do you define yourself as writer?

If you have been taught through your schooling to not take risks, to avoid experimentation, and to create good writing by following the neat boxes on a rubric; are you willing to allow yourself to be less of a rule follower? What’s to be gained (and possibly lost)?

Related Videos

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

"How We Got Our Biggest Brand Decision Wrong" from FailCon

Additional Resources

Bad Ideas About Writing (Full Book)

Read other chapters from Bad Ideas About Writing. "Failure is Not an Option" begins on page 76 of the book (page 87 in the PDF).

Bad Ideas About Writing (Full Podcast)

Listen to other episodes of the Bad Ideas About Writing podcast, which reads aloud each chapter of the book.

FailCon YouTube Channel

Check out videos from FailCon, including "How We Got Our Biggest Brand Decision Wrong" featured on this page.

Accidental Inventions: 12 Inventions Discovered by Accident

This article gives more examples of inventions discovered by accident. It details the intention (or lack thereof) behind these inventions and how they were accidentally discovered.

About the Author

Allison D. Carr is an assistant professor of rhetoric and 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.


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