Facing Our Failures

Failure.jpgThere is a trite little platitude that goes something like this, “Failure is not an option.” In reality it is a very human trait to fail at something even after exerting great effort to succeed. We all find ourselves in the midst of a fiasco now and again. It is part of who we are as people. We may fail a class even though we thought we were prepared. A relationship may sour in spite of our efforts to save it. We find ourselves being fired from a job or unable to successfully complete an important project. We wreck our car in the split second of a careless moment. We say and do exactly the wrong thing in a situation with our children. We fudge on a diet or exercise program. We inevitably make mistakes in the course of living our lives.

Perhaps instead of suggesting that there is something innately wrong in failing, we should instead concentrate on how we will behave once the genie is out of the bottle, the milk is spilled, the horse is out of the barn. Our character is often defined more by how we react to failure than how we reach success. It really doesn’t matter how many times it may have taken us to achieve a goal as much as how resolved and persistent we have been in getting there. Our willingness to keep trying often determines the trajectory of our lives. Those who adapt optimistically to their circumstances are likely to ultimately overcome even the most challenging situations. In addition, we need to teach ourselves and others how to identify toxic situations and to recognize when to walk away from them.

I know a man who literally spent almost a decade attempting to earn a college degree. He had to work to pay his tuition and the coursework was sometimes quite difficult for him. He would joke that he was going to be the oldest graduate ever. Nonetheless, he kept his eye on the prize, never giving up, even when it seemed hopeless. The day came when he held his diploma in his hand. Ultimately it was his unstoppable tenacity that earned him a great job and his willingness to keep trying against all odds has become his hallmark. He has risen to the top of his profession, admired by peers and bosses alike as someone with a dogged willingness to get the job done. He is the go to man when the situation gets tough. Everyone knows that he will not take no for an answer.

Beethoven composed symphonies even after becoming deaf. Thomas Edison had to create hundreds of prototypes before finally finding a lightbulb that would work. Albert Einstein was thought to be a slow learner at school. Abraham Lincoln was initially seen as someone incapable of achieving much of merit. Walt Disney was told that he had no creative instincts. The list of so called failures who eventually became famous for their contributions to the world is long because the reality is that we all hit walls from time to time.

Too often we dwell on the things that we have done wrong rather than just picking ourselves up, deciding how to improve and then moving on. When we become captive to the negativity associated with failure we give up, run away. We assume that there is no reason to keep banging our heads against walls. We end up with regrets. We think of our might have beens. The go getters, instead, dust themselves off and get back in the saddle. They learn from each unsuccessful iteration and apply their new found knowledge to improving their lots. They remain unafraid to take risks.

I sometimes wonder if our society creates individuals who give in to failure because of the ways that we speak of it and react to it. In schools there is linear progression of learning with tests along to the way provide evidence of accumulated knowledge. Students mostly move in lock step from one skill to the next. For those who may take a bit longer to master concepts the process becomes a series of failures that all too often result in a feeling of hopelessness. I all too often heard the refrain, “I’m just not good in math.” The truth was that everyone of those who uttered such remarks was more than capable of becoming adept with numbers. They just took longer to grasp the ideas. With a bit of effort and encouragement they were eventually able to achieve a high level of comfort with very complex algorithms. They felt a sense of accomplishment that in turn lead to a greater willingness to explore even more difficult ideas.

When I was in middle school a gym teacher told me that I was the clumsiest, least athletic person that she had ever met. She ridiculed all of my efforts to please her. As a result I mostly traveled through life thinking of myself as a total klutz, unable to even catch a ball. It was not until I met a professor in college that my attitude changed. He convinced me that I too could be skilled if shown the proper techniques. He insisted that my old teacher had been remiss in expecting me to possess natural born abilities in sports. He taught me the fundamentals and my world as well as my attitude was transformed.

We certainly value the child who is capable of taking the school team to the championship. We send our finest debaters to the competition. Still we must be willing to provide opportunities to shine for those who are not as gifted. It is up to us to model behaviors that will teach them that improving is just as important as winning the prize. We have to let them know that they will ultimately find their pathways by participating in many different experiences.

I am particularly taken with the attitudes of my twin grandsons. They are incredible athletes but they do not measure success by the number of medals or trophies that they earn. Instead they focus on being their personal best. Their goals always involve moving just a bit closer to a better individual record. If doing so happens to give them a championship it is wonderful. If it only demonstrates that they are getting closer to their goals they are just as happy. They have already developed a way of thinking that is going to take them far. Would that we might be able to do the same for everyone.

Failure never feels good. It is a downer that we don’t want to experience but it sometimes happens. If we can analyze our situation and make improvements our mistakes will not have been for naught. We are all on a journey. How well we do depends on our ability to adapt and become stronger. That requires a positive willingness to keeping trying to find our way. If we keep the faith it will happen. Perhaps our new mantra should be, “Giving in to failure is not an option.” We would be wise to teach that to our children as well.

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