And I quote: George Eliot

Statue of George Eliot by John Letts

In the context of my confession about enjoying the prospect of easy, uncomplicated tasks, I bring you a quote today that reminds me of the limits of easy. George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans), expressed this view in her novel Middlemarch:

“Failure after long perseverance is much grander than never to have a striving good enough to be called a failure.”

We probably wouldn’t use the phrase, “to have a striving” these days, but we all know what she means. I’m just not sure that our culture supports her views. We are preoccupied with success; we hand out participation trophies. And we have real trouble making sense of failure.

In Carol Dweck’s book Mindset, I recall reading that young people who felt that their intelligence was an innate, fixed quality, and who were praised for being smart, were more likely to avoid challenging work. Presumably, they felt that they were better off avoiding the risk of failure, thus protecting their reputation. In turn, protecting their reputation for being smart interfered with their growth through further learning.

Eliot’s statement points out that failure is not the only consideration; there is no reason to be proud of playing it safe and being able to say, “at least I didn’t fail.”

We have good friends whose family motto is “We can do hard things.” I don’t think they necessarily go out of their way to make their lives difficult, but they recognize that “this is hard” is not reason enough in itself to abandon an activity.

I close with a little story about a hard thing. A couple of decades ago, I began a workout routine that ran this commercial at the start of the program:


I remember thinking to myself after I had done it, I guess I’m in better shape than I thought—I’m not completely exhausted. When I analyzed the situation, though, I realized that being new to the routine, it would take me a little while to figure out how to do each new sequence of moves, during which time I’d have a little rest. I was certainly not working as hard as the perfectly toned steppers in the video.

I was not going to go wait in the bus, like the sedentary spectator at the bottom of the pyramid, but I was also not in good enough shape to run up all those steps.

What kind of effect does the prospect of hard things have on you?



2 thoughts on “And I quote: George Eliot

  1. I think it is really important to understand and celebrate failure. Maybe there should even be a subject, failurology. It’s not enough (in my experience) to just tell students that “it’s okay to fail”. It seems like there are many different varieties of failure, which are useful for different purposes, and which perhaps should be understood and processed differently. (BTW Dweck’s work is popular right now in some mathematics education circles, and has been extended in that direction by another Stanford professor, Jo Boaler.)

    • I agree. My sister led a camp experience for teen girls a few years ago with the theme “Strive.” The steps they focused on were Try, Fail, Learn and grow, Try again. They spent one day on the failing step, and all day congratulated each other on failures, recognizing that it’s an important part of the process of learning and growing. And they stuck bandages on the knees of their pants to remind themselves of the pain that often accompanies failure.
      Myself, I talk a good line about the importance of failure, but I don’t know that I’m very good at it yet. I’m probably better than I used to be, though.

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