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Friday, April 20, 2012

Failure Is Always an Option


I have been reflecting recently on how often I hear, "Failure Is Not An Option." From earnest motivational posters to hard-bitten action films, this phrase is bandied about as if "failure" is tantamount to total annihilation, like the destruction of the planet Alderaan by the Death Star in "Star Wars." No, we definitely don't want that.

At the same time, I see chirpy messages like "Reach for the Stars!" "Go for it!" and "You Can Do It!"

So... which is it? It can't possibly be both! The command, "Go for it, but for heaven's sake don't fail!" seems perfectly calculated to cause an epic choke and an epidemic of anxiety. Oh wait, that's what we have, isn't it? It is axiomatic that we learn more from our failures than from our triumphs, so how have we made any result short of first place so toxic?  Of course we always want our kids to do their best, but are they always clear on the difference between doing their best and doing the best? 

I recently entered a national contest - never mind what it was - and spent some time studying past winners on the website with my daughter. The skill and expertise demonstrated in those examples made my effort look pretty amateurish, and the Lovely K. and I agreed that my chances of winning looked pretty slim given the competition. So why do it? Why even try? 


My willingness to fail is very recent! Time was when I would do pretty much anything to avoid putting my standing as a winner at risk. That meant I had to restrict myself to a quite narrow range of things that I'm really good at, and steer clear of serious competition. One by one, other activities or interests withered away, killed by the life-sucking judgment of "not good enough." Failure had too sharp a sting.

But as a parent, I see the harmful effects of the fear of failure in my daughter; there are plenty of things she shrinks back from trying, or things she throws in the towel on after a first failed effort. "Failure is not an option" means it's better not to try than to come up short. And yet, if our reach exceeds our grasp we still come away with something in hand. Even if you don't make it all the way to the top of the mountain, you still have a better view than you get at the bottom.

I sometimes suspect that we've created a rigid dichotomy around the concepts of winning and losing.  There's first place (winner) and then there's everything else (losers).  But really?  Would you really say that the Olympic athletes who don't win a medal are losers?  That the kids who finish second, third and fourth (etc.)  in the National Spelling Bee are losers?   Success is measured in many ways, not just by a glossy first place ribbon.  I don't advocate the "everybody gets a trophy," standard, which rewards kids just for showing up.  But somewhere between Failure Is Not an Option and Everybody's a Winner there is a happy medium, where hard work is recognized and applauded, and perseverance is a reward that will enrich your child's entire life - not to mention what your child might learn along the way about what she is capable of, and who she is as an individual.

So I am setting my sights on some activities I will probably fail at, trying to summon each of the six types of courage in turn to risk disappointment, loss, blows to my ego, and possibly even some bumps and bruises as well. In some ways it's a performance for an audience of one (my daughter), but I also know I'll end up with a little bit of stardust on my fingers. Here I go: watch me fail!



8 comments:

  1. I love this! I think teaching children to 'fail', to make mistakes, lose a competition gracefully with their confidence intact is one of the most important jobs we have as parents.

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    1. Yes, being able to lose a competition gracefully is a very useful thing, as I learned when I lost a game I had just taught my daughter how to play!

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  2. I agree. Critical message for parents, schools and society. i would quibble, that we don't so much need to "teach children to fail" as not to teach them not to fail. I met a thirty-year-old on a plane last month and discovered a person who had learned how to be invincible:
    http://rickackerly.com/2012/03/07/the-invincible-thirty-something-and-the-three-joys-of-parenting-a-difficult-child/
    Kids don't have the problem--our culture does.

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    1. Thanks, Rick - yes, you make a good point. It's not so much teaching them to fail (since that's inevitable sooner or later) as teaching them to fail without freaking out.

      Best wishes to you and your family.

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  3. Wonderful article! Helen Keller famously said "The fearful are caught as often as those who take risks." Critical we ask ourselves what is the high bar of being? While academia nutures individual achievement and success at the expense of others, Life rewards the courageous and those that are able to empathize and inspire others to persevere through difficulties. This capacity comes with personal experience - with the lessons learned through failure. Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote "The most beautiful people we have known are those that have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern."

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    1. That Kubler Ross quotation is really wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

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  4. My son went running the other day, resulting in a time somewhat outside his PB but he had a go and, of course, any physical activity always has its benefits. I find timing oneself useful for monitoring how your fitness is progressing and for creating a challenge, so long as it is not used as a negative self-judgement.

    My comment to him: "Mate, you were a winner the moment you put on your sneakers!" had just the desired effect!

    The word "fail" is such a setup word (right up there with that other bogey word "should") and you, of course, know that you will not "fail" because the terms for classification of failure/success in your challenges are different. Like my son and his running, you will be a winner just by trying. Good luck with your project!

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    1. Thanks for your feedback, Fear Dragon. Yes, keeping track of our own performance is a great way to measure progress without negative comparison with others. When my daughter is discouraged because she feels that her stories are not as good as my stories I remind her that she's comparing herself to 1. a professional 2. an adult 3. a native English speaker. When I remind her of how far she has come since moving here from Ethiopia at age 8, she instantly changes her outlook and her self-esteem visibly rises (i.e. sad face changes to surprised and proud face).

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