Thursday, August 9, 2012

You Are Going to Fail (But That's Okay), by Steve Thomas


Luke: I can’t believe it.
Yoda: That is why you fail.

I have news for you: you’re going to fail.

Now, that may be an obvious statement, but mired in the swampy muck of Internet memes, the word “fail” has lost a good chunk of its power. It used to hold a sense of dark gravitas but now it’s a punchline or at best, a hashtag suffix. That’s unfortunate, because failing is no less important now than it was before. The power of failure cannot be stressed enough but it’s not nearly as depressing as it sounds. Failure just shows you which paths you should not travel on your path to success.


 Before I allow myself to get further bogged down in any more metaphors like a man drowning in quicksand (sorry), let me just say that I have failed so many times in my career and my life that I cannot even begin to count the ways. Heck, it took me until I was almost 30 years old before I even figured out that I wanted to be a librarian, and I got fired from my first professional position.

Yeah, that’s right. Fired, let go, downsized, however you want to think about it. Was it a horrible experience? Sure, at the time, I can’t say I wanted to crack a lot of jokes about it. I allowed myself a day to wallow in being depressed but then I picked myself up and went to work finding another job.


I took a few part-time positions along the way, but this experience led me straight out of academia, into public libraries and right into my current job, the best one I’ve ever had, where I feel like I’m really helping people. In fact, even though they didn’t ask in my interview for my current job, I volunteered the information that I was fired from my previous position because I felt like it was best to be honest and own up to my part in what had gone wrong in the job from which I’d been fired.

I haven’t failed as spectacularly since, but I still fail. Outside of my normal job, I do a podcast called Circulating Ideas, where I interview librarians about their work. I did an interview with a couple of librarians and everything went great on that end but when things got to the editing stage, I realized that the audio file containing the interview had become corrupted and I could not recover it. Also, the interviewees weren’t immediately available for a do-over. However, I didn’t allow that setback to impede the progress of the show. I rebooked with the original interviewees for a couple of weeks later and slipped in another quick interview that I was able to get up quickly to take the place of the original, allowing me to keep to my monthly schedule. Even outside this particular incident, Skype will often drop calls which leads to lots of apologizing and editing but by keeping a calm attitude and a determination to make the best of the situation, everything works out.


So, hauling out the metaphors once again, don’t get sucked into a black hole of failure. Instead, accept it for the learning opportunity that it is, and let it make your next great success that much brighter.

Steve Thomas is a public librarian and the host of Circulating Ideas, the librarian interview podcast. He lives in the suburbs of Atlanta with his wife, two kids, and two cats. He likes all three Star Wars movies (he still lives in denial). You can follow him on Twitter @stevelibrarian.


  1. Looking back over my career, the situations where I've learned the most are also those in which I failed the most. I've also found myself in quite a few situations where I'm totally winging it and hoping that what I'm doing is the right thing. Sometimes it is, other times I realize quickly another course of action would have been best.

    I feel like our culture puts far to much emphasis on success and doesn't highlight that often those people who we view as being a success reached that point after a series of failures.

    I often look to my wife who started her own business (and is now in lib school herself to become a school media specialist) as a great source of inspiration. She is able to take great risks but always keep in mind that if she does fail, it's just a learning opportunity for her to be more successful next time.

  2. I'd like our students to be more willing to fail. I admit to perfectionism in my own academic career, I know it's hard! But seriously, go ahead! Get that C-. Go whole hog, try really hard, and still get the F. Write your own style of paper and take the flack. Just GO for things. Get yourself a tiny apartment in a whole new city and live like a churchmouse for a while until you make it as big as you want to make it. If we can teach our students just what you've laid out so well for those of us already ensconced in the profession, I would be very, very, pleased.