Charles Gray | How TV taught me about failure
The Gray Area | What can ‘The Twilight Zone’ teach us about disappointment?
March 20, 2012, 11:17 pm·
The Gray Area
I’ve always been a fan of television shows from the 60s.
At the dawn of television, American networks didn’t have the technological sophistication or budgets required to record complicated action scenes. Episodes would never simultaneously feature a car flip, a helicopter chase and three explosions the way shows like 24 do now.
So the networks decided to focus on doing the one thing modern-day television series don’t do. They focused on building compelling stories through superior script writing. In fact, many episodes would only follow two characters, allowing the writers to focus on human interactions and moral dilemmas.
One of my favorite episodes from this period is “A Nice Place to Visit” from The Twilight Zone series. In this episode, a robber named Rocky Valentine, who has lived an immoral life, is killed while attempting to rob a bank. He is then approached by a man who identifies himself as his guardian angel.
The “angel” gives him everything he wants, causing Valentine to think he’s made it to heaven. Every time he plays cards or gambles at the casino, he wins. He has all of the material wealth that he wanted on earth. And since he is a thief, he initially does not have a problem with the fact that all of this success is simply given to him.
But after a few months, he becomes distraught because everything he does is predetermined to succeed. When he begins to complain and demand that his guardian angel make him fail at something for once, a surprise is revealed — he is really in hell and his “guardian angel” is the Devil.
The message of this episode is clear: one of the things that makes life wonderful is that our endeavors are not guaranteed to succeed. The greatest punishment that the Devil could give Valentine was to deny him the opportunity to fail. A world where success is guaranteed may be a nice place to visit, but it is an unbearable place to live.
It makes sense that this message was part of a television show in the 1960s, rather than one today. At that time, America was built much more on the idea of a merit-based society. People believed that hard work was the key to success.
Over the past few months, I got a much-needed reminder of this lesson. I’ve always wanted to become a delegate to the Republican National Convention. After learning that Pennsylvania has a unique system in which delegates are elected separately on the primary ballot, I decided to try and collect the 250 signatures required to qualify for a spot.
After the three-week collection period, I turned in 339 signatures. It seemed like my goal had been reached.
But I was in for a surprise. Most of these signatures were collected from students on campus who were registered Republicans. This presented the opportunity for others to challenge the signatures on many small matters that are unique to a college campus.
For example, seniors were challenged for signing with their current campus address rather than the address that they registered at as freshmen. Because I had only a little over the required number of signatures, these challenges added up. Enough signatures were ruled invalid for me to be taken off the ballot.
At first, it was impossible not to be disappointed with what happened. Everyone I talked to told me that I would learn from this experience. And indeed, I did learn a great deal — mainly, that I should have collected more signatures so that there would have been a greater cushion.
But after thinking about it for a little bit, this was way more important than simply a learning opportunity.
Rather, as in The Twilight Zone episode, it became one of many opportunities to fail.
The idea of failing at a goal has been demonized, but it plays an important role in making each day different, exciting and worthwhile. The fact that some things may not work out is a reason to do more than simply go through the motions.
So next time something you want doesn’t pan out, don’t just think of it as a learning opportunity. Rather, think of it as something that makes the world more than simply a nice place to visit.
Charles Gray is a College and Wharton senior from Casper, Wyo. His email address is email@example.com. The Gray Area appears every other Wednesday.