Learning to Fail

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.”
~ J.K. Rowling

When was the last time you failed at something?  What about your child?  If you’re being totally honest I’m going to guess we’re not going to get much further back than a day or two.  And being equally honest, most people will be offended to read that and think “Not me!”  But yes, yes you.

We have a problem in our society that people don’t know how to fail.  They don’t understand what it means and in turn we run from failure and do all we can to ensure that what is actually a failure isn’t seen as one by anyone around us.  I have heard many people go so far as to suggest that the word failure doesn’t actually mean was it does, that it now has to include an element of intentionality or full responsibility to qualify.

Fail (v): To be unsuccessful in achieving one’s goal

Failure (n): A lack of success

Today I failed in many ways.  I didn’t get all the cleaning done that I had set out to do.  I didn’t get the errands done that I had planned for.  I didn’t get all the work done either.  I failed.  When you throw parenting into the mix, this problem becomes even more pronounced for both parent and child.  As a parent today I failed in that I didn’t manage to take that extra moment when frustrated to take a deep breath and calm down before snapping at my kids.  These are examples of failure.  A lack of success.

The typical way to approach this failure in our society would be to say that it’s okay, that there were extenuating circumstances (my sitter cancelled for the time I was supposed to do work, I didn’t have access to the car, and my back was killing me) that forgive my failure and make it not so much a failure as just something that seems to have happened to me.  With this view, I can feel good about myself and move on to the next day without thinking twice.  This is the view we instill into children when they fail.  We come up with excuses and tell them it’s not their fault (as if failure requires fault).  We do all we can to remove the stigma of being unsuccessful as if only success matters.

I don’t want this view.

Not that I want to be horribly down on myself or my children - absolutely not - but I want something different.  I want us to see a lack of success as just that: A lack of success.  Something that happens to all of us and something that, if we allow it, we can actually learn from and help our odds of success later on.  What if, instead of brushing off my failures today, I took a moment and tried to figure out where I went wrong – admitting that there were factors outside my control as well – and worked that knowledge into my future goals?

I could immediately see that my sitter has canceled regularly lately so banking on her being here to get work done isn’t a good bet.  I could see that my back is often sore so my expectations for myself – the goals I’m setting – are likely unrealistic at this time.  These unrealistic expectations also led to frustration which led to my inability to take that moment and not take out my frustrations on my kids.  I could also then accept that sometimes I will fail for reasons beyond my control (like the lack of a car that meant certain errands didn’t get done).  Then I can use all of this in the goals I set for myself tomorrow.

In some schools in Japan, at the end of the school year students get up in front of peers and parents and talk about the ways in which they failed that year.  They aren’t shamed for it, this isn’t even seen as an exercise in shaming or guilt.  What they then do is talk about how they are learning from this and what they plan to do next year that is different.  They take a lack of success and figure out how to try and make it work to their advantage.   They have the very important realization that failure is not inherently bad and in fact can be unbelievably good if we can only learn not to fear it and instead accept it.  Embrace it even.

Learning to do this requires an environment that welcomes failure.  This can start in the home and in the classroom where children aren’t scolded for doing poorly on something, but rather the time is taken to make sure they learn from their failures.  Tests aren’t graded, handed back, and never to be seen again, but rather graded, gone over, and followed-up with (either at home or with a teacher) to make sure the child learns what was missed.  Importantly, we need an environment that allows children and adults alike to celebrate when they have taken a failure, learned from it, and later succeeded.  This can never happen if failure isn’t allowed to occur.

Talk to your children when they fail.  Don’t make it a bad thing, but ask them what they could do different next time.  When they do different and succeed, take the time to celebrate that because that is how they will learn not only how to fail, but how to take that failure and turn it into something spectacular.

“It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons from failure.”
~ Bill Gates

By Tracy Cassels

November 16, 2015