Truths & Aspirations

My Sparkling Trail of Courage and Failure

About 1 ½ years ago, I wrote about creativity in the Student Affairs workplace for this very blog.  Now I’m tasked with writing about ‘failure’ and it’s not hard to see that these two aspects of the human experience are completely and inextricably wedded to each other.  There’s so much I could say, personally, about failure as–quite simply–I’ve lived and had experiences.  I am, after all, a grown up, a mother, a sister, a daughter, and at various times, a partner.  From these roles alone, I’ve left a trail of sparkling failures behind me.  Big ones and little ones.  They’re all there.  I don’t want to forget them; in fact, I want to own them and cherish them, and I’ll tell you why.  But first, I want to make a connection, yet again, to Student Affairs work.  What about failure here?  What sparkling trails do we make and where do they lead?

To prepare for this writing, I returned to an old book which I first encountered on my required reading list for a course I took in dance choreography many, many years ago.  While much about The Courage to Create by Rollo May feels painfully dated to me now, there are some wonderful passages that illuminate, so aptly, the presence and value of failure in my working life in Student Affairs and at Ryerson.  I connect May’s writing to the topic of failure in Student Affairs work by way of May’s exploration of courage and creativity in his book.  In an effort to define courage, May says that “In human beings courage is necessary to make being and becoming possible.  An assertion of the self, a commitment, is essential if the self is to have any reality” (p. 4).  

This passage speaks to me about what it means to come into work every day as the Director of Student Learning Support in Ryerson Student Affairs.  In my experience, working with students, staff, and other community members at Ryerson is a daily assertion of self, a constant and elemental commitment of emotions, intellect, and pure gusto, to create the conditions for others to gain the courage to become their own and best selves.  Ryerson is an educational environment, and those of us lucky enough to be paid to be here to support that endeavour, are–at a very fundamental level–making a commitment and asserting ourselves to communicate, cultivate deep and meaningful relationships, and to connect.  This is work and it can be risky. Not climbing Mount Everest risky, but every day and quiet moment risky.    

Elsewhere in his book, May adds a very important layer to his exploration of the meaning and presence of courage in human existence.  He refers to this layer as the “curious paradox of every kind of courage” (p. 12).  The paradox is “the seeming contradiction that we must be fully committed, but we must also be aware at the same time that we might possibly be wrong” (p. 12-13).  This is where failure comes in.  To become our full selves; to assert our beings in the world and show up for other people by guiding them, listening to them, teaching them, and caring for them, we need to do these things while embracing, in the very same instant, the knowledge that we might fail.  This is courage.  Being courageous is being a friend of failure — even tiny, modest failures. And, isn’t this what it means to be a Student Affairs professional?

What I want to say is that for me, there is no episode of ‘failure’ in my Student Affairs work at Ryerson.  Failure and courage is what I do everyday here.  Everyday I extend myself for something (I write an email, I have a conversation, I plan a way forward) and there is the possibility that it might be wrong.  Or, indeed, that extension of myself in the world that I’ve just committed to is actually wrong.  Rollo May reminds me that this is okay.  He reminds me that this is the substance of living well and of working professionally (which, for me, is living well).  I have a sparkling trail of failure (and courage and assertion of self!) behind me.  It is my whole career and I’m grateful for it.