Zero Harm and the Fear of Failure

J.K. Rowling describes in her book Very Good Lives, her fear of failure as a young child. She recalls how such fear limits creativity, imagination and vision. She also talks about ‘the fringe benefits of failure’. In SPoR, we call this ‘the by-products and trade-offs of fallible decision making’.

Rowling doesn’t discuss fallibility ( but talks about the ‘inevitability of failure’ and the resilience learned by living in being-with-failure. The semiotic she attaches to this discussion is of an eraser at the end of a pencil, hard at work re-framing and re-working an idea.

When I was a child, we didn’t have erasers in school and used pens dipped in ink. We used ‘blotters’ and ink would run, there were no biros. These conditions changed the whole way we thought about mistakes. The consequences were huge and paper was not cheap. We never thought of tearing out a sheet of paper from a book and we had no concept of ‘waste paper’. We learned to write in cursive when teachers were less forgiving and the smack and cane were commonly used. Needless to say, there was no talk of perfection, no talk of ‘zero’ but also little talk of forgiveness and tolerance.

I remember well, the classroom climate in primary school in Sydney 1962-66. This was when fear ruled the school climate and, lying and cover-up become and art form. In such a climate there is no talk of creativity, discovery, imagination or innovation. The form of non-learning we received was ‘rote-learning’, which is NOT learning. This is what the fear of failure creates, its own special form of psychosocial anxiety that suppresses inspiration, vision and artistry. What a relief it was when I became a teacher in the 1970s when all of that fear was gone and children were humanised as participants in their own Education.

When I look back to those times of anxiety and fear in schooling and the thoughts of Rowling, I can’t help but think of the brutalism of zero that pervades the safety=zero industry.

This Monday 27 November in Sydney is the launch of the great ‘zero event’ ( where the ideology of zero is paraded as some kind of vision for the industry. It is the opposite ( ). Everything about zero supresses creativity, discovery, movement and learning. Most important to understand, Zero suppresses vision. What is again so typical of Safety; it describes what is, by what it isn’t:

  • Zero is the symbol of fear and anxiety for an industry that doesn’t know what to do about harm and injury.
  • Zero is the semiotic that represents an industry that has no idea what do about a dumb binary question that supposes that injury rates define safety.
  • Zero is the language that fosters psychosocial anxiety in the hearts of fallible workers who know that there is no such thing as zero and that accidents happen, things go wrong and mistakes are normal ( ).

What a strange industry that turns the mental illness of perfectionism into a virtue and then demands that everyone ‘believe the impossible’ ( ).

In her book, Rowling speaks of how her literary work Harry Potter was rejected. She also speaks of the power of human empathy that understands the nature of fallibility and the resilience required to cope with mistakes. She rejects the fear associated with perfectionism and recalls how many pieces of writing ended up in the bin and on the floor in the writing process.

Just imagine if Rowling got up every morning to the accolades of zero and the extoling of perfectionism as a virtue. There would be no Harry Potter. No joy of millions who love so much of her stories. Rowling’s life story is the opposite of zero. Her life is full of opportunity, creativity, failure, risk and vision.

There can never be any vision in zero vision.


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