Opinion

The secret to success: Fail a little.

Success is more than winning or achieving. Look at Thoreau's life.

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I want this new school year to be a good one for my students as they learn about everything from calculus to Shakespeare to failure.

That's right. Failure.

We all need to fail a little. In fact, the secret of success, might just be that. Consider the path of Henry David Thoreau.

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By many accounts, Thoreau was a failure. Folks thought he should have been a civic leader. He could have been a doctor, a lawyer, a teacher. He might even have made congressman or governor.

Instead, the Harvard man seemed to spend most of his time loafing in the woods near his hometown over near Walden Pond. Everyone just scratched their heads and wondered why such a promising young fellow wasn't a "success."

I'm not suggesting that my students drop classes for the woods, but it's important to remember that ideas on success vary, even in these enlightened times.

Some measure success by the size of the car he or she drives, others point to the width of their wallet or the number of bathrooms in their house.

The trouble is, by that way of thinking, America becomes the land of numbers and the higher the number, the greater the success.

Baseball's numbers help us to remember that frequent failure can be considered a success. Players who routinely fail to get a hit 7 out of every 10 at-bats are considered All-Stars. But they are really stars because they learn from their mistakes.

The lessons of failure are an important part of the curriculum of success. We learn from them. They push us to do better; they teach us humility.

As teacher, I expect students to revise their work, to build on the "failure" of the first draft to achieve clarity and insight in the final draft. That's a good model for most things in life.

Part of the problem, though, is that we live in a country obsessed by results. In school it is the A student who gets all the perks even though getting an A doesn't always measure how much a person really knows. A's are icons of honor. F's are badges of defeat.

We idealize icons and look up to heroes such as George Washington or John Glenn. Yet we shouldn't discount the heroes who labor outside the limelight. Those are the men and women who quietly go about the business of raising a family and taking care of their neighbors.

The most admirable are ones who invent their own success. They know how to seize the moment and let the chips fall where they may. They know that the best way to measure success is by living each day to the fullest.

True success is giving something back. And you don't have to have a lot in the wallet to attain it. There are many people, young and old, who give back by serving in literacy campaigns and soup kitchens.

As my father used to say: "Make sure you leave the world a better place than it was when you entered it. At least clean up after yourself."

The beginning of the school year is a good time to start reorienting ourselves. It's a good time to see our failures in a new light.

After Thoreau died in 1862, his mentor, Ralph Waldo Emerson, lamented that Henry hadn't blossomed into a great leader of the nation. His books were little read, his ideas seemed skewed. And yet, less than 100 years later, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. pointed to Thoreau's essay "Civil Disobedience" as one of the sparks that ignited the civil rights movement and profoundly shaped American society.

Not a bad legacy for a failure.

Tom O'Malley is an adjunct professor at Canisius College, in Buffalo, N.Y. He also teaches high school English.

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