Failure


The great question is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with failure. – Chinese Proverb

I have had failures in my life and they have impacted upon the person I am now. I failed physics in Form 5 and Chemistry in Form 6, primarily due to a total lack of motivation and the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do. One of the worst questions you can ever ask a kid is what do you want to be when you grow up. I envy those who do know early on what direction they wish to take but for the vast majority of us it’s a bewildering and complex decision. What you aren’t told is that most people these days will have several different careers and that is not a bad thing.

Despite the failures at High School I still qualified to do an Arts Degree at Monash University but again I had absolutely no idea what direction I wanted to head in. In those days a generalist degree was something that employers seemed to value so I entered university not knowing what I wanted to do but convinced that at the end of it I would have found something that I wanted to become.

The first couple of years I drifted through doing as much as I needed to pass, but not excelling in anything. In third year though I realized that I still had no real idea of what was at the other end and I took an easier option. I worked my butt off and qualified to complete an honours degree in Geography. I had decided that I wanted to be a Park Ranger but as the applications I sent in came back with a “don’t all us we’ll call you” rejection slip time and time again, I saw my options narrowing. For a lot of jobs I was either over qualified or didn’t have quite the right qualifications. In those days rangers needed to be able to use a chain saw or drive a four wheel drive, academics weren’t really valued. So again, I took the easy option and started a Masters degree, but my heart wasn’t in it.

I worked in a retail store whilst I was studying but it wasn’t enough money to give me any sort of lifestyle so I also worked early mornings cleaning offices. At one stage a lady I worked in the store with got ill and I was asked to come in full time for a couple of weeks whilst she was away. That fortnight grew to six months whilst she recovered from a major operation and the whole time I worked 9-5 there I was also working from 5-8 in the morning cleaning offices, always expecting to continue my studies at some stage. Something had to give and I gave the store an ultimatum – put me on full time or I would leave and go back to cleaning and my studies – they offered me a full time job.

I never saw that retail was going to be a long term option for me either and the store I worked for, Waltons, was sold to a bloke [Alan Bond] who was eventually declared a bankrupt and jailed for fraud offences. With the changes looming there I decided that I needed to look around for something else and applied for both Officer Training in the Air Force and the Victoria Police.

The offer to join the Police Force came through first and within six weeks of application I was marching in the front door of the Police Academy at Glen Waverley. That was a real culture shock – I went from shoulder length hair and full beard to short back and sides and clean shaven overnight, and into a situation where it was all yes sir no sir three bags full sir. I’ll leave some of the academy experiences for another post, but suffice to say here that I passed second in a class of 52 and went out onto the streets, young and keen and with a real sense of duty to my community.

Some years later I transferred to what was then the Counter Terrorist Explosive Information Section, later to become the Counter Terrorist Intelligence Section and then the Protective Security Intelligence Group, a job I loved. Challenging and interesting, a need to keep abreast of current affairs and one I felt had an important role to fulfill. Several years in the job was reclassified and I found that I was required to do Detective Training School [DTS]. I had no real desire to be a detective, being very happy as an intelligence analyst, but if I was to retain my position I had to do the course.

Now this course is regarded as one of the hardest and most prestigious in the job – three months of intensive study into things such as criminal law, interrogation, crime scene examination to name a few. It is said that the participants do as much criminal law in that three months that lawyers do in an entire degree. It really is head down and bum up, eighteen hour days seven days a week.

At that time the School had a new Commanding Officer and as sometimes happens it appears he was determined to make his mark. The course consisted of six different modules and in order to pass the students needed to achieve an average of at least 60% for each module and an overall average of 75%.

It was evident early on that the 30 in the class were different, for some reason, to any class that had gone before. Where other classes had averaged 75% during the progressive exams with a spread of 60-90% across the class, our average was only 65% and the spread 50-80%. What wasn’t evident at the time was the apparent lack of effort the instructors were putting in to get the students up to the required standard. Many of them had been there a few years and were wanting to transfer out so in hindsight their motivation may have been suspect. I was later told by the Assistant Commissioner for Crime who was a past O/C of the school that he had spent many nights working with his students after hours to ensure they got through. That didn’t happen with us – all we were told was that we shouldn’t worry everything would be alright.

There were a few things that changed for that course compared to previous ones. Firstly, an open book exam on fingerprints was cancelled – as part of the overall course that subject as a standalone was enough to boost most people’s overall mark by around 5%. Secondly, the multiple choice questions on some of the criminal law exams went from 3 or 4 alternative answers to five – often with two very similar answers that relied upon a photographic memory of the law. What that meant was that it took longer to read the questions and you therefore had less time to answer them.

Additionally in the last practice exam before the finals the instructors decided not to give out the results nor to go through the questions and answers, with some of those questioned repeated on the final exam we were at a disadvantage if we answered wrong the first time around.

The final day everyone is given a number which is the order in which you are brought before a panel of instructors to answer a final lot of questions. This is also an assessable part of the course and in what I thought was a lucky stroke I drew number one. I went in to face the panel with a fair amount of confidence but that was shattered pretty quickly when I was told I had failed the course with an overall mark of 74.3%. Remember the pass mark was 75% and in virtually every course up until that one around 3 out of a class of 30 failed. As the day wore on the litany of disaster unfolded with 3 of the class failing to complete, and 16 failing. The new O/C had made his mark, drawn the line in the sand and in the process ruined the careers of a lot of good coppers. There was no second chance at this course, having tried and failed, people were rarely given a second chance to sit it again.

I was one of only two of the failures to turn up to the graduation dinner that night. I wasn’t going to skulk and hide, disappointed as I was, I was not going to give anyone the satisfaction of seeing me run away. I did object to the petty and snide remarks made by the O/C that night criticizing my fellow class mates who did not front and I therefore left at the first available opportunity.

A couple of months later I was sitting at my desk late one Friday night when I received a call from the Assistant Commissioner of Crime, under whose department the school fell.

“Laurie,” he said, “I have in front of me 15 letters of appeal from the other students who failed the course. You’re the only one who hasn’t appealed, why not?”

I explained that I believed that I had done my best and that if that was not good enough I was prepared to wear the decision. He said, “But I know you were second in your double squad at the Academy, duxed the analyst course and I would hate to think that if the appeal succeeds that you will be the only one who doesn’t get the chance to redo the course. I want you to put in the appeal by Monday morning and I’ll hold onto the others until I get yours.”

So the following week an investigation into the course was announced. It was my opinion then, and nothing has happened to change it since, that there was no way any misconduct on behalf of the instructors, nor any conspiracy to fail students would ever be proven. And to be honest I don’t think there was any. I do believe that the instructors were lacking in motivation and did not do as well as they could have to try and get the students up to standard, too many of them had been there too long. I also believe that there was no slack cut for the changes in the course structure. I do know that in previous courses, provided they hadn’t really stuffed up, that students within 2% of passing would have an extra couple of marks found somewhere to ensure they got over the line. If the fingerprint exam alone had remained as it was on previous courses then an extra eight people would have passed, myself included.

We have forty million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.
– Bishop Reginald Heber

Anyway the appeal process unfolded and I was interviewed and spelt out everything I said above. I got a call from the inspector conducting the appeal who said, “Laurie, I understand your daughter was ill during the course, if you wish that will be grounds for you to be given another opportunity to do the course.”

“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said. “There is no way I will use her as an excuse, I did my best, so be it.”

Erin had been ill. This course had commenced in January 1994 and she had been born in August 1993. Between then and the Christmas she had three major operations which I have written about here, and she did indeed get sick again about a month into the course but I knew that at the time. In hindsight I may have been best to withdraw then, but I honestly believed that I would get through.

The conclusion of the enquiry into the course was that the students were academically worse than previous courses and that the proportion of failures was due to our comparative lack of intelligence and not systemic failure. They were prepared to make an exception for me but I was more than a little pissed off with the system at that stage and I also had no intention of using Erin as an excuse.

Despite the fact that I continued to work at the Counter Terrorist Section and in fact was promoted to the position of Sergeant in Charge of the Analytical section, my faith in the organisation was battered by this experience. Within three years 12 of the 16 who failed the course had left the job. Many of them were very good street coppers, far better than I, who had basically had many of their future career choices taken from them. I followed them and resigned in May 1997.

So I have failed three things of an academic nature in my lifetime. I have failed many more as a person. But we can learn as much from failure as success can’t we?

“And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.” – Robert William Service
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16 Comments

  1. Pen and the Sword said,

    July 20, 2007 at 1:13 pm

    Wow… that’s quite the story.

    Do you think anything would have come from the appeals being accepted? Probably wouldn’t change how you felt about the organization, I am sure.

    I tried my hand at the United States Air Force myself. Didn’t last… got kicked out.

  2. Jeff said,

    July 20, 2007 at 9:17 pm

    Learning from failure – it is wise of you to recognize this. Actually, I believe that we learn more from failure. There is a saying in the Bible on how we should be more thankful for the failures than the successes because of this (paraphrasing as to not be preachy).

    Of course, one has to be WILLING to learn from them. I am afraid that some fail and fail and never attempt to learn. That is the ultimate waste.

  3. Loz said,

    July 20, 2007 at 11:01 pm

    Hi Pen
    It wouldn’t have changed things for me. I like to think I wasn’t bitter and twisted but in hindsight it did have an impact on how I felt about things. It is also not the type ofurse you really want to tackle twice.

  4. Loz said,

    July 20, 2007 at 11:02 pm

    I agree Jeff. I also had a failed business venture after I left the police force and learnt a huge amount about myself from that, particularly in relation to work effort.

  5. People in the Sun said,

    July 20, 2007 at 11:08 pm

    I failed to get my promotion at work, I failed to convince the government I was discriminated against, but worst of all, I failed to let go of the grudge and I failed to stop hating these people. These things are always easier said than done, I know that at least. And I know things have worked out for the better, as they always do, for everyone.

  6. paisley said,

    July 21, 2007 at 1:14 am

    if it weren’t for failures,, we would have no way to gauge our success’….

  7. Dorothy said,

    July 21, 2007 at 5:31 am

    What a story.
    I got your comment on the music meme back to you. It was a good idea and enjoywed participating in it, even though my love of music is there, my knowledge of it isn’t. Seems I’ve been alseep for a very long time on a lot of things. It’s nice to wake up again.
    Nice to meet you. I enjoyed your post. I’ll come back sometime.

  8. Random Magus said,

    July 21, 2007 at 3:57 pm

    Every time I read your posts I marvel at your courage and honesty.
    To learn from any failure is to turn it into a something one benefits from. Because it’s not only our victories but our failures also that go into making the person we are today

  9. HollyGL said,

    July 22, 2007 at 3:00 am

    Loz, This story, though heartbreaking, is a testament to your integrity as well as your huge capacity for empathy. You spoke so kindly of the fellow officers who had to leave the force because of limited options.

    I have definitely tried to learn from my failures, but I can’t say I have succeeded as gracefully as you.

  10. Loz said,

    July 22, 2007 at 4:43 am

    People- it’s always easy to be bitter and blame someone else. Bottomline is if I’d answered one more question correctly in the final exam I would have passed.

  11. Loz said,

    July 22, 2007 at 4:44 am

    Hi Dorothy thanks for dropping by and for doing the music meme

  12. Loz said,

    July 22, 2007 at 4:45 am

    Amber – that’s very kind of you. I don’t see myself as courageous at all, in fact I have tended to run from conflict more often than face it.

  13. Loz said,

    July 22, 2007 at 4:47 am

    Steph – in some ways choosing not to do the course again may have been an easy option. Having failed on a course where 60% failed I could use that as an excuse – the scarey part would have been to do it again, fail again and then not have an excuse 🙂

  14. Blur Ting said,

    July 23, 2007 at 12:24 am

    Great story and it shows how you’re able to accept adversities that life throws at you. It’s a good trait to have.

  15. Micki said,

    July 23, 2007 at 1:11 am

    I’m feeling like a parrot here – but I truly believe that I have learned much more from my failures than successes. At this point in my life – I expect success.

  16. Graham said,

    July 31, 2007 at 8:44 am

    In retrospect, I can live with failures like not not pushing myself to finish a Doctorate, I can live with being fired from a job, all those kind of things I can rationalise and deal with. What jumps out of the closet in the early early hours of the mornings, are those thoughts of how I possibly failed friends and family. Real or percieved, that bothers me the most.


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