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Failure and cultural engagement


WORLD Radio - Failure and cultural engagement

We’re back with our panel of guests to talk about learning from failure in culture. How do headline-making mistakes inform the way we teach our kids and students? How does failure factor into engaging community, including the broader culture in which we are placed? Dr. Bob Burns, Dr. Donald Guthrie, and Jessie Swigart help us explore the big questions.

KELSEY REED: Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from WORLD Radio and God’s WORLD News. Our mission is to come alongside you, learning and laboring with you as you disciple kids and teens through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here with Jonathan Boes.


KELSEY: We’re excited to share part two of our conversation with our panel of esteemed guests. But before we dive in, we want to invite you to write or record your questions for us to address in future episodes. Please send your questions to newscoach@wng.org.

JONATHAN: Yes, we always love receiving those questions or even just thoughts, whether it’s about this podcast or about something you’re seeing in culture or current events. We would love to hear from you, whatever you want to send our way.

So on a previous episode, we opened up the topic of failure. We looked at what failure means for our discipleship process and our formation. Now today, we’re going to broaden that scope a little bit. We’re going to look at what failure means on a cultural level. What do we do with the stories of failure that we encounter in the news all the time, whether it’s these smaller scale failures—relatively smaller scale—of an unmanned SpaceX rocket spinning out of control, or maybe it’s a larger, tragic failure, as we saw with the lives lost in the Titan submersible earlier this year. So to help us grapple again with this topic of failure, we are back with our panel of guests from part one.

KELSEY: Jessie, Donald, Bob, welcome back.



BOB BURNS: Good to be here.

KELSEY: We told our audience a bit about each of you through the lens of your vocational expression and scholarship the last time we were together. But for this episode, I think it’d be fun to actually allow each of you to provide a little more of the color regarding how the Lord has interwoven our relational threads through the years. So I want to start with Dr. Bob Burns.

BOB: Well, you know, it’s fun for me to be on a podcast with Kelsey, because I’ve known Kelsey since she was a toddler. Her father is one of my oldest friends. We were in college together and we’ve been tracking with each other through the years. So it’s just a joy to be able to see Kelsey. And of course, when I was teaching at Covenant Seminary, Kelsey was doing her degrees there. And it was fun to be able to interact with her on multiple levels, not just in the classroom, but outside the classroom in another context there.

Going over to Donald—first time I met Donald, we were both involved in churches in the Atlanta area. And we were in a meeting where joint churches were getting together, and we were talking about various aspects of ministry. And this guy kept spouting forth all kinds of wisdom. I said, “I need to talk more with him.” And he said, “Want to come out to get to know me better, out in Athens here?” So we went out and started talking together. And that eventually grew into a time of him asking me if I would come up and help coordinate a program that he had gotten funding for. And so I was able to do that, to move to St. Louis, and to be where he was at that time. And we worked together as partners in crime in that context, but not just partners in crime, but friends and associates, and got to know each other’s families and care for each other, and in the midst of that get to know this teacher/learner named Jessie Swigart, who was in our classes, but was always asking these insightful and penetrating questions and reflecting on life and herself. And it was just fun to get to know her in that context.

So we all got to know each other better in St. Louis. But since then, we just kept in contact with each other over the weeks and months. It was fun to sit in on a seminar that Jessie did a couple of years ago, in a big meeting that we were at, and just to sit there and learn and grow from her teaching me. So it’s been fun for us to have our lives intertwined together as we’ve sought to grow together in the Lord.

KELSEY: Any further color from you, Donald, or you, Jessie?

DONALD: Well, I think like Bob said, it’s just really a joy to have colleagues as friends over many years. Because I think it adds a depth of understanding and love and care for one another, even as you try to minister with one another to others. So I think it’s just one of the joys of my life to have walked with these guys and with you for so long.

KELSEY: Jessie, you and I have some extra threads of special connection, partly because we were students together, but there’s some other things to mention.

JESSIE: Well, yes, we—Kelsey and I—we were both in seminary at the same time. We both worked in the childcare center that the seminary provided at the same time, and Kelsey’s children, her older children, were really small at that time. And I remember one of my favorite parts of the week was just rocking her second youngest. You know, in the midst of intense seminary studying and everything like that, it was wonderful just to rock a toddler to sleep once a week. And that meant a lot to me. And so yes, at seminary, I learned from both Dr. Burns and Dr. Guthrie. They really modeled learning as process for me. And they really gave me freedom as a student to come up short and try again, and really, really encouraged me to not let fear of getting it wrong get in the way of curiosity and learning.

KELSEY: So we get into some of that history because it is amazing look into, actually, areas where we have shared failure. Particularly, each of you has seen deeply and intimately into failures in my own life. Jessie has seen me parent, as each of the others have, but probably Jessie most intimately has seen me parent. Dr. Burns, you saw me in my most competitive mode, as I sought to prove points within a community of research analysts. And each of you has just been gracious in my own learning process. So I’m just thankful to be able to reflect on, and bear witness to, what the Lord does through relationship.

Our first question is going to be about what can we expect from embracing failure in the learning process, specifically, kind of, in the classroom, and as we look at the material that we see in the world, and as we process that together in a learning environment. So to reiterate that question: What does embracing failure look like in operation in an educational setting, at home or in the classroom? Jessie, would you be willing to lead us out with that one?

JESSIE: I think, first of all, it’s important—you know, there are the explicit and the implicit aspects of a learning environment. And I do think there is value in making freedom to fail explicit. When you’re teaching something for a number of years, you forget that something is a new idea to others, after you’ve taught it several times. I have found, teaching at the seminary level, I am surprised every year that there are always students, when they hear about the freedom to fail, something happens in them where it’s like—this is the first time they’ve ever heard that concept, making the freedom to fail explicit. A couple of things that I like to do is—there’s this essay written in 2009 by Denis Haack, called “The Wonderful Freedom to Fail.” And it is a short essay. And people respond so well to that essay, and embrace it, and carry it forward of like, “Oh, I can actually change my mindset and think that failure is okay.”

But the thing is, as you talk about that, and you talk about the freedom to fail, then you need to model it. Then you need to model it in your classroom, or the learning experiences that you design. And first of all, when you are a teacher, you are the chief learner in that class, and so make note of your own failures. And when something doesn’t work in class, that is a really great opportunity to process what didn’t work in your design as a class. And in doing that, you’re not making it about yourself. You’re not asking that the class to tell you “Oh, it’s okay. It wasn’t that bad.” No, you are taking that opportunity as a case and inviting the other learners to work that case with you about what didn’t work. Why didn’t it work? What could work better next time? That can be really powerful. But that also means letting go of some control as an educator, and I think that’s one of the hardest things about modeling freedom to fail, is that it is a little bit unpredictable. And you lose some control with students as well, if you are giving them freedom to fail. That means that they’re actually doing something in the class. Maybe they’re working on a problem on the board, or they are—you have them try something and then field test it with their peers. And you don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen. But embracing that lack of knowing what’s going to happen, and entering into that with your learners, can actually be really powerful. And another thing it does is it models—it does a couple of things. One, it helps people get experience with not being perfect in front of others. But another thing it does is it helps them practice giving feedback to others as well. And so you are developing a community where you are learning from one another’s failures or shortcomings in the learning together, and you get to see the fruits of learning from failure together.

KELSEY: Bob, I’d love to turn to you to add to this.

BOB: There are so many good things Jesse just shared. Let me broaden this out a little bit and say that most contexts that we’re in—most contexts that our friends are in, most contexts that our children are in—reward success and penalize failure. And the natural consequence of punishing failures is that people learn to avoid identifying them, let alone learn from them.

Now stop. And let’s stop and think for a moment. What are some of the most significant formation influences that we and our children are facing today? Technology, screens, things in our pockets. The average adult in America spends a minimum of two and a half hours a day in and on technology. The folks listening to this podcast right now are using technology. And asking ourselves: How much are we receiving in this formation process? How much are we receiving an opportunity to learn and grow through failure? And it’s just an important thing, I think, for us as parents and as individuals in a learning context to ask ourselves, so that when we have a person come into a classroom situation, that’s the frame of reference they’re coming from. And so we are seeking to set very much of a counterculture perspective towards life and learning, simply by embracing failure as a critical component of growth and development.

And I think we have to name that. We have to name that not only to ourselves, but name that to our learners in whatever context we’re doing that in, and to promote a self-reflection on all the varied contexts. Whether you’re hanging out with your friends, whether you’re going to, you know, whatever contexts—the beach, the bowling alley, wherever it would be, to create a process by which we’re encouraging ourselves and encouraging our family and our learners to ask those kinds of questions. How is how is failure approached in this context? I think simply to do that, and to have that mindset, is critically important to keep in mind.

KELSEY: Donald, to you.

DONALD: A couple of things that these guys have said have reminded me of the necessity for a feedback loop. You don’t learn how to do anything without feedback and without practice. So practice, with feedback, is just—it’s magic almost. None of us have learned how to do anything without practice and feedback. So one of the practical ways to tap into that is to ask folk to remember just something, maybe from everyday life, that they’ve learned how to do—that can be anything from walking, to riding a bike, to what they do at work. It could be anything. And then get them to reflect on their process of how they learned how to do it. And inevitably, obviously, there will be iteration. There will be, “Oh, so you mean you learned how to do that the first time you tried it?” And they’ll say, “Oh, of course not!” And you kind of catch them in the iterative process that they haven’t ever named before, probably, or they haven’t thought about it that way. And that helps them remember, “Oh, wait a minute, in my own experience, I’ve actually learned how to do things, and it took iteration, it took practice with feedback. So I’m not as new to this as I think I am.” We sometimes can forget that. So that’s one.

The other thing, both kind of in theory and in practice is, maybe we need to think about the iterative process, or the failure process you might say, as a continuum, rather than a point, a particular point. And maybe it would help if we could remind ourselves that there are kind of gradations along this continuum of failure. There’s a sort of abject failure—we can learn from that too. But there’s also—maybe you turn it on its head and say, “Maybe failure is proximate success.” Maybe that’s a renaming of the whole thing, so that I can learn something. I didn’t get everything wrong in this, whatever it is I just tried, but I got something right I can build on. And help people focus on the things they can build on with the feedback and the practice. Again, in everyday things, first on the way to more complex things and more things that involve groups and communities. There’s lots of baby steps that have to be taken on the way to great strides. And I think it’ll just add more fear to folks if you just say, “Okay, go from zero to 100 by tomorrow.” That’s just crazy. Let’s just help them go from here to here to here to here as they name their own experience. Then that can be an opportunity to build on actually more of the knowledge that they actually have.

KELSEY: Bob, I see you thinking.

BOB: Yeah, just exactly what Donald was saying. There have been full studies done on various professions—the nursing profession, the legal profession, teaching others—and asking the question: What’s the process of moving from novice, abject novice that don’t know what they’re doing, all the way to expert. And most studies show that process covers a minimum of somewhere between nine to 15 years. And yet, we don’t know we’re in that process. But we’re doing that. But in order to learn something new, as Donald was saying, failure is an imperative.

DONALD: And it might actually lead to humble excellence. Humble excellence in Christ is a good thing. Excellence is a good thing. We don’t—we shouldn’t kind of downplay excellence. You’ve got to put performance in its place. That’s not the same thing. But humble excellence in Christ is actually a good thing. “Do everything as unto the Lord.” I mean, that’s a very, very good thing to reflect on. And that takes lots of iteration and lots of coaching and lots of feedback and lots of community. So it seems like, wherever we start, wherever we finish, this is just baked into the whole process, as we said earlier: sanctification, and participating in one another’s maturing.

BOB: Back in 2019, I had the opportunity of having both of my hips replaced. And I was talking with my surgeon, who happens to be a committed believer. And I said, “Tell me about the process of your learning this.” And he said, “Bob, the most”—he said—he was already one of the most esteemed surgeons in this area in the country. I won’t get into all of that—but he said, “One of the most important things for me was having to have both of my knees replaced.” And he said, “Going through that myself, and seeing what the recovery was like, and walking through that as the patient rather than as the physician, changed my whole understanding of the process and how I deal with my patients.”

KELSEY: Bear with me as I seek to synthesize a bunch of these thoughts to turn towards what we introduced at the outset of this episode. These examples of things in the news, where we almost see what I would suggest is maybe a skipping of some of that iterative process, in one example, and maybe an embracing of the iterative process in another, but we could treat these two as case studies for thinking about these ideas that you guys have been pointing to with such aplomb—this one situation with a SpaceX rocket that exploded, and even the responses to that explosion, versus the Titan submersible, which imploded. As we think about those as case studies, you know, maybe help us think through what we could affirm and what we should challenge in each of these situations, as we think about an appropriate mindset towards this embracing of failure.

BOB: So let’s take the SpaceX first. You might remember that the response that was—that’s Elon Musk, wasn’t it? His response was mind boggling to most people, because it was kind of like, “Isn’t this tremendous? Look at all that we’re going to be able to learn from the explosion of SpaceX!” It reminded me of the story of Thomas Edison, whose factory was up in East Orange, New Jersey. And his whole factory one evening went up in flames. And his son was standing at their doorway, and his dad was running from the factory to the doorway. And he thought, “Oh my goodness, dad’s going to go crazy. He’s losing everything he’s invested his whole life in.” And the closer his dad came, he said, “Go get your mom, go get the kids! They’re never going to see a fire like this again!” The whole mentality of—and then he pulled all of his leaders together and said, “This is going to give us an opportunity to learn and to be better and to build better.” A whole learning perspective.

I’ll let my colleagues reflect on the sad story of the Titan submersible. But I was just pleased and just had to laugh when I heard Elon Musk talk about the fact that, “I’ve just blown millions of dollars, and what a great opportunity for us to learn from that!” It reminded me of another story of a person, I can’t remember his name, who was the head of General Motors at one point, and he had a subordinate that had just absolutely blown it and had lost a couple of million dollars, and came in and fully expected to be fired. And the CEO said, “Fire? I just spent $2 million training you.” So this learning mindset, over against the sad mindset of not being willing to learn.

JESSIE: Yeah, I think some of the controversy around Elon Musk is—and I don’t have a privileged view into what Elon Musk is thinking in his mind—is the thing with the SpaceX explosion in particular, it was a magnificent, you know, implosion. If you’re going to fail, fail big. I mean, try and fail big. Some of the criticism about that came from people saying this failure was actually predictable. And this failure was actually—engineers actually warned that this was a very, very real possibility. And what actually happened, what did the actual engineers actually warn of—that is beyond what I know. But I think it’s one of these things is—failure is inevitable, and failure is always a learning experience. But are all failures inevitable? And I think that’s, you know, what we’re looking at. What about SpaceX was just honest trying and learning from what failed? And where could Elon Musk grow in teachability?

And we definitely see that in the Titan submersible, that so much came out, is like, okay, what warnings went unheeded? And was there teachability that was perhaps lacking, that could have avoided a catastrophe?

DONALD: Just to quickly build on what Jessie just said—the stakes are pretty high when lives are at stake. It doesn’t get higher than that. And so the attention that must be paid to learning from previous failures just zooms up. That’s not an option. I’d say it even is obvious. But apparently, it isn’t obvious. I don’t know what all of the different transferable principles are to the rest of us learning from such sort of spectacular failures in the public eye, except to pay attention to the value of human life, the value to protect vulnerable folk, and to be very mindful about high stakes iteration. Because many of our folks, that’s what they do every day. I mean, they have to make decisions. I have a friend who’s a surgeon. I really want him to get it right, don’t I? And the person he’s operating on really wants him to get it right, but also to learn and to bring all that acumen to bear, so that even as he gets it just right, he’s still learning. He still wants to learn. He still wants to know the latest tools that he can use. He still wants to learn the latest medicines he can employ. It’s not as if you ever arrive, even at some high level of expertise when the stakes are super high. You still have to have this mindset of teachability and learning. Nobody gets a pass. Nobody gets an out.

JESSIE: All that. If I could add to what Donald and Bob said about the story of, “I’ve invested this much money in you, [therefore] I’m not going to fire you,” is that—if that surgeon does get it wrong—as high stakes, if that surgeon does get it wrong, I think it’s really important to have an environment where, when that surgeon gets it wrong, the surgeon can say, “This is what I got wrong,” even if he made a mistake. Because we are in community. We are operating in systems. And if failure is never an option, and it is always punitive, people will be incentivized to hide mistakes. And that is the last thing that any of us need.

KELSEY: What I hear in your response to these stories out in culture is this modeling of a Christian worldview that elevates the value of human life, and models a posture of grief when human life is lost, that elevates humility. “Teachability” is the word that we’ve been using. That puts so much stock in that idea that blame-shifting has no place. Because things stick to us, the learner, and that it connects with that striving for excellence that we were talking about in response to one of the other questions, that in humility, we realize that there’s something else that we can grow in. So it’s not failure for failure’s sake. It’s failure in terms of how it instructs and softens the heart. And so there’s something very unique in that Christian worldview posture, if we can use the term that way, that we are modeling in response to the stories of the world, in the typical processes of a world that does not have an understanding of supply, of grace, of an outcome that is beyond our own reputation or performance.

And so, just as we’re thinking about what it means to live out our relationships in this world, with that posture that, with that worldview posture towards failure, I want to ask you: Where have you seen that influence the way that you engage maybe unbelieving neighbors and community, or how you expect that it will influence the neighbors and the community and even the culture around us, to live out that posture in the world?

DONALD: I guess I’ve seen a couple of recent examples with just neighbors here in our own area, of small kindnesses to one another among Christians and non-Christians both. And some folk know how to receive kindnesses, and some don’t, because it’s such a startling, strange thing for them. They sort of can’t believe you’re being kind, or someone’s being kind, to them. They haven’t obviously experienced much kindness. They haven’t experienced much permission to fail, I mean in terms of our topic. I’ll say it this way, that it’s not an immediate reception. It’s not an immediate understanding. There’s still some confusion and anxiety of, where am I right now? Because I’m not used to this. So again, it takes some patience and time with folks for whom this is kind of a new game. They’re not used to this. They’re not used to being given permission to fail. That’s just crazy talk to them, let alone in reality, let alone in practice. “I don’t have to get this right the first time? You mean I can try again?” “Yeah, yeah, that’s okay.” “Oh, come on.” I mean, that might be more likely to be both the initial response but also an ongoing response from a lot of folk, because this is new. This is a new territory for a lot of people. They haven’t had it modeled for them in their family of origin. They don’t work in an environment that has this sort of a culture baked in or encouraged. So I guess I’m just reminded of seeing these, like I said, small kindnesses with the folk all around us right here, as a reminder to be patient through the process. Don’t expect immediate “Oh, let’s have a parade because now everybody embraces failure.” It just takes a while. Like, obviously, of course it does, but it just does. And I need to remind myself of that, and the folk entrusted to my care of that too.

BOB: I think another step—I love that illustration, Donald, I’m thinking of consciously trying to do that in the grocery store, with people who are working in a grocery store. And I’m not going to get into the stories. I think another area is—I alluded to this earlier—but just the approach we take in our families towards the media, the approach we take towards, let’s say—if the family watches a movie together, and taking the time, first of all, taking the time to listen to The World and Everything In It and listen to what Collin Garbarino has to say about what the movie is. But after that, you know, then talking together about the movie, and about, among other things, how failure is accepted or not accepted in that context. Listening to the news together, and talking together about how failure is approached and managed through the news stories that we’re listening to, and through the way that that’s being reflected in the contexts. How is failure accepted or not accepted on Capitol Hill? How is it accepted or not accepted in the context of our local police department? Again, making this a topic of worldview conversation with our family members, with our neighbors and friends, even if they’re not believers, to be able to have a conversation and to discuss the issue of failure in that regard. So I think what we’re saying is, taking the invisible and making it visible, just naming the reality of how this is being managed.

KELSEY: Jessie, do you have anything you’d like to add?

JESSIE: No, I mean, totally affirm what Donald and Bob have just said. And to reiterate, because we are—we have so much formational history in hiding failure that it takes a while to develop relationships with people where your failures are in front of one another. But that’s why you have to be persistent and intentional in the relationships and, you know, not wasting the opportunities that are in front of you. When your neighbor’s kid hits a baseball through your window, or when the teenager runs into the back of your car in a fender-bender at a stoplight, those are opportunities to—there are consequences for those things. It’s the—how is the kid going to pay for your window? You know, how do you exchange insurance? But you are working—not only with the kid, but those are high-stress experiences for the parents as well. And showing steady grace to the parents in those situations reveals a lot about our Christian view on failure, and that failure is still about the formation of the person, and not our inconvenience.

KELSEY: I hear, between what you and Donald said, about what it means to just have a difference of the hard-baked performance, anxious, you know, maybe even abuse in the system, as Bob mentioned, in his own family’s experience—that, versus baking into a system this gracious response, this tender response. That, while there might be consequences, you don’t have to beat somebody up. You can foster growth. So what a beautiful alternative perspective, this posture that we foster, that through those questions that Bob, you were asking, that we are cultivating this posture, this Christian worldview process and posture into all that we do in every sphere of life. And so I’m so encouraged by the things you guys have shared today. And Donald, I want to give you the opportunity to be the one who gives us a benediction today, if you would.

DONALD: This is from Titus. It’s one of those great places in the scripture that provides an amazingly succinct summary of the gospel. And it speaks to everything we’ve been talking about. Paul says: “When the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to His own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified Hy his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”

So, in one really compact, dense summary of the gospel, you get the reminder of the Trinitarian participation of our salvation. You get forgiveness for guilt. You get acceptance for shame. You get the Spirit applying the Lord Jesus Christ’s perfect work, and reminding us He’s never anxious. He’s always fully present. He’s always right on time. I mean, He’s the one, and it just keeps reminding us of that, in the Spirit’s kindness, that we have one to whom we can turn, both when we fail, and when we in God’s mercy—and kindness of others—we actually do something well. It’s all before His face and for His glory.

KELSEY: May He be glorified through all the words that we have shared today. And parent, teacher, mentor of kids and teens, you students who are listening in—I hope that you have been blessed by these equipping words today, knowing the Trinitarian equipment that He has provided for your work.

Show Notes

We’re back with our panel of guests to talk about learning from failure in culture. How do headline-making mistakes inform the way we teach our kids and students? How does failure factor into engaging community, including the broader culture in which we are placed? Dr. Bob Burns, Dr. Donald Guthrie, and Jessie Swigart help us explore the big questions.

Check out The Concurrently Companion for this week’s downloadable episode guide including discussion questions and scripture for further study.

We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at newscoach@wng.org. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.

See more from the News Coach, including episode transcripts.

Further Resources:

Concurrently is produced by God’s WORLD News. We provide current events materials for kids and teens that show how God is working in the world. To learn more about God’s WORLD News and browse sample magazines, visit gwnews.com.

Today’s episode is sponsored by Covenant College.

Looking for an unapologetically Christian College Experience? Pursuing knowledge transformed by faith, Covenant College prepares students for their callings and careers. Covenant is located on top of Lookout Mountain, Georgia, 20 minutes from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Students who visit are eligible to receive a grant of $1,200. More at Covenant.edu/world.

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