Deferred Success

Sometimes it’s hard to tell parody from what it’s parodying. Take this for instance:

Now, I found this on comedy site   That’s a good place to go to see things like people not setting their parking brakes, teenagers running out of talentcriminally bad parental priority-setting, and other sorts of cruel humor.  Almost always good for a laugh.

But there is a good purpose to using a harsh word like “fail.”  Some people are simply too dense to understand that being told that your efforts have resulted in “deferred success” means that you haven’t succeeded.  To be sure, kids especially will experience a visceral emotional reaction when they are told that they have failed, that their performance is unacceptable.  But how else are they going to know they need to do better next time?

While I can’t be sure this isn’t a joke about this sort of thing rather than the actual subject of such a joke, it’s simply too realistic for me to dismiss it as parody.  But parody is a very good way to demonstrate the problem here:

A doctor who told her patients that they are in a state of “deferred health” would be talking nonsense and potentially putting her patient’s lives at risk.  “You are ill,” the doctor should say, “and here’s how you get better.”

A professional athlete who does not win a game has not “deferred victory.” He has “lost.”

Similarly, a lawyer does not tell her client that the judge has “deferred awarding you a favorable ruling.” A lawyer defending an accused rapist with the claim that her client merely “deferred obtaining consent for sex” probably ought not to be in that line of work.

An accountant ought not advise his client that “You are experiencing a state of deferred profits” or it seems that you have deferred responding to a tax liability.”  Sadly, this is exactly the sort of language that some accountants do use when breaking that bad news.  The clients need to hear, in plain English, what they need to do.  Just say it:  “You are operating at a loss.”  “You owe taxes.”  Good accountants break the bad news to their clients straight.

 Of course telling someone they’ve failed produces an unpleasant emotional reaction; that is the point.  That’s how you get someone’s attention.  “This isn’t good enough.”  I get that response sometimes too — from judges, from clients,* from my employers, from my wife.  I don’t like it, especially from my wife.  But without it, I don’t know that where I’m going is not where I’m expected to be.  With it, I’m alerted to the fact that I need to straighten up my act and do better.  Learning to accept acknowledge and correct one’s own shortcomings is a function of being a mature adult.

I’m also aware from my own experiences as an employer, and as a teacher, that delivering a message of failure is unpleasant.  I work on underperforming students ten times as much as I do on the ones who meet or exceed expectations.  I dread addressing the angst of students who think they have performed well when in fact they did not.  Combine that with grade inflation, in which there are only two grades, “A” and everything else, and then I need to deal with failure-angst coming from students whose performance is acceptable as well, and you’ve got the real down side of teaching.  But at the end of the day, particularly at a collegiate level, students have to own their own educations, and while I work hard to give the underperforming students ways to do that, the most valuable tool in my arsenal to get them to perform well is the ability to tell them that they haven’t performed well.

When a teacher calls a student’s performance a “deferred success,” the student will not hear the word “deferred” but only hear the word “success,” and combined with removing the emotional sting of the word “failure” from the response, this is a sure-fire recipe for additional results of the same unacceptable level.

*  I get it from opposing counsel, too, but that I disregard.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.