Failure Is Not an Ending

Author: Alison Macor '88

Tom Suddes ’71 knows what it’s like to fail. After nearly a decade in the development office at Notre Dame, Suddes left in 1981 to pursue his entrepreneurial dreams. He purchased an abandoned warehouse in downtown South Bend, renovated the interior and turned it into an athletic club. The East Bank Center project had potential, but Suddes found himself overextended as interest rates soared past 22.5 percent. Soon he was giving racquetball lessons at 6 in the morning, then showering and changing to get to the bank when it opened to beg for another loan.

“I’m very proud of that building and project, but in the end, the numbers didn’t work,” says Suddes, the author of multiple nonfiction books. “That was where I got my start on my many books, because I did Chapter 7, Chapter 11 and Chapter 13,” he jokes of his bankruptcy at the age of 32.

“If you’re not comfortable with not succeeding or not getting everything perfectly right, you can’t possibly be an entrepreneur because you never know what’s going to happen,” he adds. “Some things work, some things don’t.”

He rebounded from the bankruptcy, forming The Suddes Group in 1983. Based in Ohio, his company has managed more than 400 fundraising campaigns and raised in excess of $1 billion. Suddes claims to have made more than 6,000 one-on-one visits to ask people to invest in various projects. “I’ve screwed up 5,812 times. Literally. I’ve kept count,” he insists.

Suddes’ ability to roll with the ups and downs of his entrepreneurial career could be an example of what it means to fail “well,” according to author and economics blogger Megan McArdle. In The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, McArdle suggests that failing well is not just about understanding one’s mistakes but also about failing with forgiveness. “Learning to fail well means overcoming our natural instincts to blame someone —maybe ourselves — whenever something goes wrong. Societies and people fail best when they err on the side of forgiveness,” she writes.

Failure is hot these days. McArdle’s and other recent books, such as Sarah Lewis’ The Rise: Creativity, the Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, have been well-reviewed and well-received. Last November The New York Times devoted an entire issue of its magazine to the concept of failure. The subject has become so popular that for the first time in five years an annual one-day conference in San Francisco called FailCon was deemed unnecessary by its founder, Cassandra Phillipps, because discussions of defeat, particularly in Silicon Valley, had become the norm. “It’s in the lexicon that you’re going to fail,” says Phillipps of the start-up culture.

But what about the world beyond Silicon Valley? The area is home to less than 10 percent of the country’s population, after all. How is failure viewed, for instance, at Notre Dame? How have high-achieving Domers experienced it in their lives? Even famed football coach Knute Rockne, who spoke often about the benefits of analyzing one’s setbacks, could take a dim view of the subject. “Show me a good and gracious loser, and I’ll show you a failure,” he liked to say. What does it mean, really, to learn from one’s failures? How do we develop our understanding of it, and what can be done to make future generations smarter about failure?

Julianne Turner, a Notre Dame associate professor of psychology, sees a connection between the concept of failing well and her own research on motivation and how students respond to academic challenges. “Motivation research says that a challenge is a very good thing. You learn from it, you’re stretching yourself a little, you’re getting out of your comfort zone.” If people can be encouraged to accept a challenge in the first place, they may have a better chance at failing well later if that initial challenge ends in defeat.

Photo by Michael Bennett

For the last four decades, Suddes has coached and refereed the Bengal Bouts, Notre Dame’s annual intramural boxing competition that benefits the Holy Cross Missions in Bangladesh. Dominick “Nappy” Napolitano ’32, ’33M.A. recruited Suddes, a welterweight champion, to coach the boxers, which is what brought him back to the University in the early 1970s. “Nobody is really used to failure at Notre Dame,” says Suddes, but he believes Bengal Bouts offer students an arena, quite literally, in which they are more willing to confront the possibility of failure than, say, in the classroom. Over the course of six weeks, 250 participants train to compete in the prelims. After this first stage of the competition, half of the boxers remain. This group competes three more times, in the quarterfinals, the semifinals and the finals, and the remaining dozen fighters are declared the winners.

“So 12 guys won, and 238 guys lost. Well, we know that’s just a crock,” says Suddes. “I teach the kids that getting in the ring is the hardest thing in the world. It’s petrifying. Almost to a man, and to a woman, now, anybody who’s participated has said it’s the best experience they’ve ever had at Notre Dame because it’s way more about life and the whole idea of participation and growing. You don’t grow just with success. The failing is really what contributes to growth.”

Brian Peters ’87 seemed primed to recognize failure. He had spent years working as a failure analysis engineer, first for Delco Electronics Corporation in Kokomo, Indiana, and then for AMD in Austin, Texas. “It’s one of those categories you don’t know exists until you get out of college,” says Peters, who majored in electrical engineering. “It was kind of a back-end deal where you realize your chip doesn’t work, so you ask, why doesn’t it work?”

Peters’ home-brewing hobby became his true passion, however, and in 1997 he and a fellow home brewer started Live Oak Brewing Company in Austin. Although neither partner had ever run a business or distributed beer, their old-world style of brewing, influenced by methods practiced in Germany and the Czech Republic, produced distinctive lagers and ales that quickly caught on. Soon Live Oak Pilz and Live Oak HefeWeizen had become staples in Austin’s most popular bars and restaurants. But as the business soared, Peters became more and more miserable.

“I started to realize that our business partnership wasn’t going to work out probably a year into sales,” says Peters. He and his partner were arguing over the division of duties, among other things. “Then it was three years, four years into it. So I thought, well, we’re dysfunctional, but we’re successful. We’re selling so much beer, everybody thinks we’re the Ben and Jerry’s of beer around Austin. Everyone thought it was super cool, but it was all just a face that you put on when you go out and do sales.”

During one sales call in 2001, Peters realized he couldn’t wait to get away from his partner. Despite the recent birth of his first child, Peters made the decision to offer to buy out his partner, which he suspected his partner wouldn’t accept, or to resign from the company. “That was one of the scariest, hardest days and biggest decisions of my life. You put your heart and soul into a company and you’re just going to walk away from it? And that’s what I did.”

Sounds like a failure of sorts, but Peters’ relief was so great that he didn’t perceive it as such. “I was giving up on my business partnership and kind of giving up on my company, but it was a weight off my shoulders. I had to give up the company at that time to get free and be able to breathe and feel like I wasn’t always mad.” Peters, who retains some shares in Live Oak, consoled himself with the fact that the company continued to do well. In many ways, his first business venture had been a success.

Peters found work crafting beer for a local brewpub, where he had begun to brew on Saturdays while still running Live Oak. From there, he became head brewer at Uncle Billy’s Brew & Cue. Peters’ recipes began to win medals at the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup, the industry’s top competitions. His Bottle Rocket Lager, a savory combination of German malt and hops, took the gold medal at the GABF. Among the accolades and job satisfaction, however, Peters was nearly blindsided by the realization that he had indeed failed at Live Oak. “I was still so proud of the fact that we had succeeded as a business that I missed the forest for the trees. My first business failure was my business relationship failure,” says Peters. “Now I get it.”

Gradually, he and his former partner began to repair their rift; they occasionally hang out at one another’s breweries. Peters is now a partner in The ABGB, a German-style brewpub and beer garden that Zagat dubbed one of the hottest eateries in the United States in 2013, the year it opened. Peters and co-partner Amos Lowe oversee The ABGB’s brewing. “I learned a lot about picking your partners and making sure you know that you’re getting into almost a marriage. You don’t go into the relationship thinking you can change the person, which is what I thought with Live Oak,” says Peters. The ABGB’s success, he says, is even sweeter given his earlier experience with failure.

In the world of craft brewing the concept of failure, as with failure analysis, is less about the fact that something failed than an acknowledgment that the process was flawed. “In general a failed brew once in a while is kind of a normal thing,” says Peters, who estimates he’s executed a couple of bad batches at every place he’s brewed. Even though he’s made his living as a business owner for more than a decade, he has struggled with the idea that closing shop is an accepted component of starting one’s own business. “I always thought failure was not an option. The way I was raised, we were pretty competitive people,” he says of growing up one of nine kids in Minnesota. “For some reason I always thought that people who failed did something wrong. Why didn’t they do enough homework to avoid it?”

Our concepts of failure and success are developed early. “For most kids it comes from two big places. One is school and the other is parents,” says psychology professor Turner. “By the time you’re about a third grader, you begin to be able to compare yourself to other kids. You begin to realize that other people can do things better than you can or faster than you can or whatever metric you use. That’s also reinforced with teacher feedback, sometimes in fairly dramatic ways such as only hanging up the papers that had 100 percent on them. If your paper’s not up there, it’s very clear that the teacher doesn’t value your work, or at least a kid could interpret it that way.”

Turner’s research into motivation draws on the work of Stanford professor Carol Dweck, who proposed the concepts of a fixed mindset and a growth mindset in terms of how people respond to challenges. Children who develop a fixed mindset value being thought of as smart or successful and consider ability or talent as a fixed element. “This need to be always at the top . . . can become a real barrier to taking risks and accepting challenges,” says Turner. “If kids with a fixed mindset do fail, they often just conclude, ‘I’m not smart,’ which is not right.” A growth mindset, on the other hand, values the learning process. Challenges, or even outright failures, are often seen as opportunities to learn, and thus grow.

“Kids whose parents have been more focused on ‘let’s do things, let’s see what happens,’ probably cultivate this ability to make mistakes, to learn from the mistakes and to realize the importance of effort,” says Turner. “I can see it in my students . . . Some people are devastated if they get a B. And others, they take the D. They stand up, they brush themselves off, and they start over.”

“I see these kids on the other end, when they come in looking for a job,” says Ophelia Camiña ’82J.D., a Dallas-based trial attorney. “They have double degrees, they may have a master’s. I’ve seen some that have Ph.D.s, and they’ve gone back for a law degree. On paper, they’re phenomenal. But whether they’re going to make good lawyers or not, good practitioners, is a totally different issue. In some respects, the fact that they probably have never failed tells me that I don’t know how they’re going to deal with adversity. Because the one thing about trial law, unlike some other areas of the law? It is unpredictable.”

Abstract concepts like failure rarely come up in law school, says Camiña. “Law schools teach you how to think like a lawyer. They give you the process; they give you the hard-core rules,” she says. Every summer Camiña returns to the Notre Dame campus to teach practicum courses, but even those classes stick mostly to the nuts and bolts of trial law. Attorneys trade war stories, however, which is when lessons about failure and adversity are shared. “The very first time I presented a motion for summary judgment, the judge interrupted me and said some things which took me off my stride. The unexpected in the courtroom is your worst nightmare, but you just have to embrace it,” she says.

Along with her own experiences, Camiña tells her associates about the well-respected lawyer who threw up in court before delivering his opening statement during his first trial, and about the successful attorney who passed out in front of a circuit of judges. “I explain that you just have to learn to deal with those things. You have to let other people know that you’re human,” she says.

Camiña’s most recent trip back to campus coincided with the arrival of the class of 2018, whose impressive statistics dominated the front page of The Observer during her stay. The median SAT score was 1460. The median ACT was 33. Of the estimated 2,010 students enrolled, 48 percent had ranked in the top five of their high school class; 65 percent had ranked in the top 10. “My jaw dropped. Great for Notre Dame, that they’re able to attract such talented kids. On the other hand, I thought, is it just a numbers game?” Camiña recalls. “If I were the admissions officer today, I would want kids who were going to be the face of my school in 10 years, 30 years. So who do you want to be the face of Notre Dame?”

Before Don Bishop ’77 became associate vice president for undergraduate enrollment at Notre Dame, he spent six years covering enrollment at Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration. Every Friday, the school hosted an alumnus who had made a big impact within the hospitality industry. Hundreds of people were in attendance one Friday when Hasmukh Rama of JHM Hotels, one of the top 50 hotel management companies in the world, spoke about his impoverished upbringing in India and how he had achieved success in the industry. After his talk, a student asked Rama about his backup plan for when he was just starting out. Rama replied that he had none. “If I had not succeeded,” Rama told the audience, “I would have failed. And if I had failed, after acknowledging that I failed, I would have just started all over again.”

“The majority of the room relaxed,” remembers Bishop. Rama’s talk inspired him to seek out other successful alumni, first at Cornell and then at Notre Dame. “I did a lot of interviewing of alumni to try to reverse engineer them into the freshman class. I would go out and look for kids that reminded me of who these alumni were when they were that age.” Who they were, says Bishop, were risk-takers, and most of them had failed at some point.

Risk-taking can include straight-A high school students challenging themselves by taking the toughest courses. At Notre Dame, says Bishop, it also can include an inclination toward serving others. “In a way, you can say that our students are higher risk-takers because they seem to have a higher drive toward doing service. And taking time to do service for others takes some time away from this drive for personal perfection in performance.” It can also produce long-term results. “People want to follow these types of people more. They’re more trusted, they’re more liked. . . . They have a healthy view of themselves and their lives as opposed to a neurotic need to just simply be dominant,” he says.

In recent years Bishop and his colleagues at similarly top-ranked schools have noticed a trend toward increased counseling needs among their students. “These kids will not give themselves a break. They’re very hard on themselves. It’s something that we need to keep trying to identify, which kids have a healthy sense of motivation to be highly accomplished and which ones have this negative motivation,” says Bishop.

Turner observes negative and positive motivation among her students on a regular basis. Many of her courses focus on the writing process, and drafts of papers often are not graded. “A lot of my students are really uncomfortable with that. Notre Dame students are very grade-driven,” says Turner, who tells her students that while she cares about their grades because she knows they care about their grades, she is most invested in their learning. “Parents may think that just pushing their children to excel is the best thing they can do for them. It really hurts so many students that I’ve known. Then they come to believe that they’re only valued when they’re doing what their parents want.”

Maria Gillcrist ’80, who worked as an architect for nearly a decade while raising two children, found herself headed in this direction when her oldest child, Michael, started junior high school. Pregnant with her third child in 1992, she decided to stay home to raise her family, which would grow to include two more children. “I was driven to do well, to get As. College is such an ingrained thing in me. If college is not the plan, I don’t know what Plan B is,” says Gillcrist of her early thinking about her children’s education.

When Michael entered junior high, she found herself overly focused on his academics. “I felt like he was not performing to his ability, and it was driving me crazy,” she says of her first-born, who eventually earned a ROTC scholarship to Marquette University and is now a 1st lieutenant in the Army. “I finally realized that I can’t make my goal in life for my junior high child to make the honor roll. I’ve got to look a little deeper than that. . . . I decided that what I really wanted my children to be was morally sound, happy and financially independent.”

Digging deeper was a familiar process to the Kansas City, Missouri, resident. Shortly after her graduation from Notre Dame, Gillcrist married a fellow Domer. Within three years, the couple had split. “A failed marriage is a failure. On top of that, there was a certain sense of shame about having a failed marriage because nobody else in my family had ever gone through that.”

Gillcrist decided to seek an annulment, and the rather arduous process proved surprisingly revelatory. “If divorce is about pointing your finger at the other person, the annulment is turning your finger back on yourself. I felt that the process of annulment was the Catholic Church at its best because it provided me the opportunity to step back and review what the heck happened. Almost all of that process is not about, ‘Why did you get married?’ but rather, ‘Where was your heart? Why did you marry this person?’”

Gillcrist discovered that she had married in part to shore up her insecurities about her professional abilities. On her own in her mid-20s, she began to take pride in supporting herself, first working for an architectural firm in Denver and then moving to Washington, D.C., as an architect on staff for the J.W. Marriott company. “That very personal failure possibly spurred on more confidence in my professional life and a lot more awareness of what I was looking for in a spouse and in a marriage,” says Gillcrist, who married her husband, Bob, in 1988.

Early experiences of failure can prove transformative. Before Brian Peters dissolved his first business partnership, even before he became a failure analysis engineer, he failed at being a Notre Dame freshman. “It was a whirlwind of disciplinary action, and it was basically three strikes and you’re out,” says Peters of the run-up to his dismissal from the University. His first strike involved underage drinking off campus. His second strike was for breaking into his resident hall’s food sales kiosk for an after-hours snack. The third and final strike came when he and his roommate were captured on a security video waiting for a friend while he was using someone else’s bank card to withdraw money from an ATM.

“We knew he was taking stuff,” Peters says of the dorm mate, “but we had no idea that he was taking people’s cards out of their wallets and trying to use them at ATMs.” The trio was called in front of James Roemer, then dean of students, who separated the group and had them write individual accounts of the incident. “They review the papers, and they don’t know whom to believe,” recalls Peters. Roemer presented the young men with two options: Take their case to the formal judicial board or leave the University for a year.

“I took the option to leave Notre Dame for a year, with the understanding that I would be readmitted and that I had to write a paper at the end of the year and describe what I learned,” says Peters.

He returned home, moving back in with his parents and enrolling at the University of Minnesota. Peters was commuting to the U of M campus, and his father would drop him off at 7 each morning on his way to work. “I was the first one on campus, and I would just sit there and wait for school to start. I was very depressed. I realized that I’d made some bad decisions. I knew that I did some stuff that I shouldn’t have done. I felt like getting that third strike was a bad deal, but I couldn’t do anything about it. I accepted that, to the point that I really wanted to go back to Notre Dame. At the time I had to keep something going, and there was a fire inside me that said, ‘I’m going back.’”

Peters was readmitted into the University, but he had lost his Navy ROTC scholarship. Unable to afford tuition on his own, he summoned the courage to meet with John Goldrick ’62, ’70M.A., ’84J.D., then associate vice president for Residential Life. “He could tell that I was nervous, and he told me to relax and asked how the semester was going,” says Peters. They chatted for a while, and then Goldrick placed a call to the financial aid office. “I’m sending Brian down. Get him taken care of,” is how Peters remembers the brief exchange. When Peters arrived at the financial aid office, paperwork for a direct loan had been prepared and was ready for his signature. “All we ask is that you pay the money back when you can,” he was told.

“There are moments in failure when something amazing comes out of it. I think [Goldrick] could see what being at Notre Dame meant to me, and that’s why they made that deal to keep me,” says Peters. However, he has yet to share the experience with his two sons, who are in middle school. “I don’t know why I’m afraid to bring it up,” he admits, but he senses that it’s time. “I was failing left and right. I was pretty upset. Now I look at it so differently. You have to accept what is happening, and what is happening can be as good or better.”

Alison Macor is an Austin-based freelance writer and the author of Chainsaws, Slackers, and Spy Kids: Thirty Years of Filmmaking in Austin, Texas.