FAILURE: a means to success

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.” – Michael Jordan.

Recently on CBC Radio, I heard a discussion between the renowned Michael Enright, host of CBC’s Sunday Edition, and three prominent and concerned educators. The subject for discussion was whether or not the current policy of ‘not failing students’ is ruining their possibilities in later life.

Where would we be today without failure and the subsequent success that failure can lead to? Would we have the telephone, space travel, or modern medicine? Most great scientific and technical advancements have been made because of years and years of trial and error.

Few of us think in this way, but perhaps we should: babies learn to crawl and toddlers learn to walk by turning ‘failure’ into success. We do not see their falling down as ‘failure’ or in any negative light at all. As parents, we see each step forward or backward as growth. So why are we so obsessed with our own failure, and more particularly that of our children?

Why must we always treat failure as negative? Why must we always threat those who have failed, especially young people in school, as if failure is the worst thing that could ever happen? Why not teach our children that failure is nothing but a signal, a sign along the road of life, reminding us to “check the map, there’s a better way.”

Admittedly, when faced with failure, particularly that of our children, it isn’t as simple as checking a map or a GPS for new directions. Hard work and a great deal of soul searching have to be part of the journey. A total remapping of our current path may be necessary. A few or many mistakes may have to be made before a person works out their directions.

And once on track, there will be more hard work ahead to keep focused and on the road to success. There may also come a time, later in life, when this new road no longer suits the changing times. Take these current times as an example. A whole new path may need to be mapped out. Why not give our children the tools not only to survive now, but also as adults?

On this road to success, forgiveness plays an important role. Here, I am not talking simply about forgiving our children, but forgiving ourselves as parents, teachers, and school boards as well. Too often, we, as caregivers, take on the responsibility of our children’s failure and make it our own.

We feel the guilt of their failure and as a result take it as our duty to make things right, when in truth, apart from offering positive support, we can do nothing to right someone else’s failure. The only person we can really change is ourselves.

Perhaps, it is our sense of guilt that misconstrues such a maxim as “failure is not an option”. Traditionally the phrase has meant “never give up”. However, more recently, many educators and parents have come to the belief that young people in school should not be failed for fear that such failure will lower their self esteem and hamper their growth. It is as if, by wiping ‘failure’ off our children’s map, we will feel better about ourselves; if failure no longer exists, we have done a good job.

But in truth, can we rid others or ourselves of failure? Absolutely not. Failure is as much a part of human existence as life itself.

Besides, children know when they have failed. We can’t hide it from them. We might believe that our intentions are positive, but what we are really doing is replacing a ‘truth’ with a ‘wannabe truth’. Is this one of the survival skills we want to teach them? The only thing we really are doing is deceiving ourselves and hurting our children.

I am not suggesting that we drop them off in the middle of a figurative desert to fend for themselves. We do have responsibility. But perhaps, our responsibility is not to shield our children from failure, but to give them the tools to overcome failure, to put it into perspective, to see failure as part of the process of moving toward success.

Just as failure does not have to be looked at as a finality, success, in general, should not be defined as a gold medal at the end of a race, but rather the process that makes the race worthwhile and helps a person to reach their own goal. Let us help young people to realize that failure only exists when he or she gives up.

The road to helping our children become responsible and successful adults starts with understanding them, as individuals, truly understanding exactly what is getting in their way, and maybe, what in us is also hampering them.

By changing ourselves, by accepting our own failures, frailties, and vulnerabilities, and learning from them—seeing failure not as a burden, but as a means to change—we can be the model for our children’s growth and their learning to live better, healthier, and more productive lives.

Let’s face it, failure is here to stay. Failure will never die. For the sake of our children, let’s embrace it. Let’s see failure for what it really is: nature’s tool to remind us that change is necessary, change is possible, and change is within their grasp. Then, let’s watch as our children truly sore.

Robert Stelmark (aka Max Tell)

troubadour, author,and musician