The Benefits of Failure

Olivia was an athlete, a successful one. She knew what it felt like to win because she regularly tasted the sweetness of victory.

Orange bits of dyed polyurethane track pressed on fingertips. Stomach muscles knotted into a tight ball of nervousness as the starting gun was about to be raised skyward. Running was in her blood. This was to be the race of all races, the culmination of four years’ sweat and perseverance. She had easily made it to the finals in her division and was favored to finish in the top two. But, second place wasn’t an option. No one of merit ever finished second. That would simply be a defeat. Failure was not something she was accustomed to or prepared to deal with. In her heart, however, Olivia knew the competition in this race matched her own skill. It was to be all or nothing. Her coach and parents certainly wouldn’t cheer on a second place finisher.

Following a fitful and sleepless night, thoughts of failure were inundating her mind, and she quickly became her own toughest competition. With each passing millisecond Olivia grew more certain of her inability to win the race. Fear of defeat insidiously crept into her consciousness, paralyzing mind and body. With the inevitability of the race looming, all doubt vanished. She would lose the race. Her lack of ability to cope with the idea of failure had defeated the undefeated athlete. The deafening crack of a gunshot rang out. Cleated feet around her instantly engaged. Still set in the starting blocks, Olivia numbly stared as the competition rounded the first corner. Failure by default was a bitter pill.

Olivia was an athlete, a much wiser one. She knew what it felt like to win because she had tasted the sweetness of victory, but Olivia was now experienced enough to know what it felt like to lose because she had also tasted the bitterness of defeat. The latter proved to be very valuable over time.

Though the story of Olivia is fictional, it’s a familiar story. Far too often children are frozen into inaction by a deep-seated fear of failure. Wisdom, however, grows with the number of attempts, not merely the number of successes. Scientists have known this pearl of wisdom for ages, as attested to by Thomas Edison when referring to his work with light bulbs:

Scientific history is filled with many eureka moments—from Archimedes’ bath to Newton’s apple—but the scientific process entails many false starts that are essential to the advancement of science. Actually, Newton wound up being wrong about two little things—time and space. They aren’t absolute as he asserted. But, would we ever consider Newton a failure? Newton was essentially and beautifully wrong, and it was his flawed model that led to Einstein’s incredible breakthroughs.

So what are good failures? Are there really such failures at all? Or is it the acceptance of failure as a path toward wisdom that makes it so valuable? Virtually all of science might be considered a failure, because scientific discoveries are constantly being revised. Scientists are able to progress from failure to failure as they move toward success in the interim…understanding there is a propensity to be proven incorrect yet again. There is nothing to be feared in being proven wrong.

Can you imagine making failure a positive outcome to children? What if we created an environment where failure, as a step toward improvement, was merely a challenge to try again? If you really want to give your children the gift of success, teach them how to fail without fear, because they will inevitably fail at something regardless of their attitude toward it.

Scientists are not their failed experiments, though the outcomes of those experiments might be considered as such. They are able to separate their personal worth from scientific outcomes. Shouldn’t children be taught the same principle? Never was this message so succinctly expressed than by the Irish poet Samuel Beckett:

“EVER TRIED. EVER FAILED. NO MATTER. TRY AGAIN. FAIL AGAIN. FAIL BETTER.”

The next time you are faced with defeat, consider dusting yourself off and saying, “Again!” After all, the best way to convey the message of successful failure to your children is through personal demonstration.

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