When Failure is Good

I didn’t intend to start a series about negative emotions, but a pattern emerged and I’ve decided to go with it a bit.

I watched a TED talk a couple of weeks ago by Kathryn Schultz on “Being Wrong.” In it, she asked the audience how it feels to be wrong, and they said words like “terrible” and “awful.” She then pointed out that that’s actually what it feels like when you realize you’re wrong, because up to that point, if you still think you’re right, being wrong feels pretty much just like being right.  It’s not being wrong that we don’t like. It’s admitting it.

We have a collective horror with failure these days.  At least, we do in the US, and I suspect in many other cultures. I think this is partly due to a school system that stresses grades and testing, which has brainwashed us into thinking there is only one right answer to any given problem and if you don’t figure it out, you’re stupid.

My fifth grade teacher actually seated us according to our overall grade in the class.  Each quarter when grades came out, a few students had to shuffle up or down the column a few seats to match her list.  I don’t know what she thought she accomplished by this, other than knowing that the first two columns wouldn’t need as much help as the fifth and sixth columns.

My best friend was seated squarely in the middle of the class and I was off to the side in the first column.  We had met on the playground before the seating chart was established; our respective test scores meant nothing to our relationship. I simply found it annoying that I couldn’t sit with her.

Later in life, when I had to deal with adulting in the real world, where there is no syllabus or study guides and no-one ever shows you a grading rubric, I discovered that reality requires far more than a good strategy for multiple-choice tests (if you don’t know the answer, it’s B) and a firm grasp of the five-paragraph essay (make sure you include at least one point the teacher said in a lecture that he or she seemed really pleased with).

I had found school easy.  Failure wasn’t an issue there. Raising kids, homeschooling them, trying to keep a house clean when it’s fully occupied 24/7, helping my newly widowed mother adjust to the single life and no longer having the time to do things at which I excelled meant that I spent the first 10-20 years of my adult life feeling like a giant failure.

For one thing, children don’t tend to do any of the things you assume they will, despite how carefully you have done exactly what the books say to do.

For another, just because I understand Algebra does not mean that I possess the ability to explain it coherently to a 14 year old who thinks he already knows everything (this is where homeschooling co-ops and extension classes are a God-send).

One day, when I was consoling a child yet again for her failure to get everything right on an assignment, I heard myself saying, “Failure is an important part of learning. You can’t learn how not to fall off your bike if you’ve never fallen off it.  You won’t remember the right way to do long division until you’ve done it wrong a few times and had it not turn out right. It’s not a bad thing – it’s just part of the process.”  My own words haunted me for the rest of the day and from that day on I stopped being so hard on myself about the way my four “projects” were turning out.

I mean, you can’t take it to heart when a project goes awry when it has a brain and a free will of its own.

I mean, I still do sometimes.  But that’s not even a little bit logical.

Failure is not the bad thing here.  Thinking we are so perfect that we’re not going to fail is the real culprit.  This is where a little humility – true humility, not the “I’m fishing for you to contradict me and tell me I’m actually awesome” kind – goes a long way.

And the actual good news there is that if we don’t humble ourselves, it won’t be long before some spectacularly bad failure will come along and help us with it.

I think if we spent less time trying to cover up our failures, we would not only get over them more quickly, but we would also have more time to learn to do better, which means we would succeed more quickly as well.

In other words, Disney was on to something with its 2007 movie, Meet the Robinsons. It turns out that “Keep Moving Forward” is a pretty good motto to live by in real life too.



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