Definition of Failure: The condition or fact of not achieving the desired end or ends; e.g. the failure of an experiment. The condition or fact of being insufficient or falling short.
Did you ever hear this one, “Failure is not an option?” To this I say, not only is it an option, in measured quantities it might be the best possible medicine you can ingest.
A failure proves that you are willing to take risks – to learn, feel, change, grow, love, live – and ultimately to be free. And, although things might not work out this time, you put yourself in a position to succeed … eventually. That is how a failure should be viewed – as putting yourself in a position to have success down the road. I don’t understand why some people lose sight of this critical key to learning … and growing. Our own personal history demonstrates it vividly.
Think about the baby who is learning to walk – who stumbles through a maze of furniture – losing his balance – falling on his butt, falling on his hands, and falling on his face. In a practical sense, he is failing terrifically! If he or she were an adult, we might say, “Hey what are you trying to prove? You obviously can’t walk! Just stick to what you do best – crawling.” In later years, the same child learns how to ride a bike – after falling down repeatedly. Adults permit kids these “failures,” so they will learn how to walk and ride a bike – eventually. Unfortunately, in later years, many adults tighten up their tolerance for allowing the child to fall short.
Frederich Nietzsche said, “There is a wantonness of goodness that strongly resembles malice.” I think this describes many parents, teachers, and coaches today. They have forgotten their models for learning how to walk and ride a bike. They begin to harbor expectations – expectations for perfection and goodness. They critique children with a barrage of judgments: You shouldn’t have taken a shot from that far out – what were you thinking? You must dance with stronger arms and smile – like you’re having fun. Why are you trying out for the school play – you can’t sing? Unfortunately, the lesson learned is to avoid anything that has the slightest hint of failure.
I think it’s a tragedy to hear a young person say, “No way, I’m no good at doing that,” no matter what that may be. The idea “I’m no good at that” could come internally, or it could be motivated by other people who have labeled things they can or cannot do well. They begin to hear, think, and act on thoughts like, “I’m uncoordinated,” “I stink at math,” or “I’m not very artistic.” The next time you hear or think such a statement, consider the words of Vincent Van Gogh; “If you hear a voice within you saying ‘you are not a painter’ then by all means paint … And that voice will be silenced.” Don’t let any voice – even your own – tell you what you are not.
When I was coaching youth recreation soccer, a parent once approached me and said, “Coach, I’m Billy’s mom and I was wondering if you could keep him out of the goal today? I’m afraid someone might score a goal on him and he would feel terrible.” My reply to her was, “I can’t promise you that no one will score a goal on your son. But, what if the best player on the other team breaks free, is charging towards Billy, and he stretches his arms as high as he can, and makes a fantastic save. The way he feels after that save – is that worth the risk? And, even if his arms fall short, and the goal is scored on him – at least he will learn how to deal with those feelings.”
As coach, I often put my own kids in the goal when none of their teammates volunteered to play goalie. I’m sure they suspected that, but in fact, there was another reason. I wanted to get them out of their comfort zone. I wanted to see how they responded when someone scored a goal on them. Yes, I actually took delight in the prospect that my kids might give up a goal during the game. I wanted them to feel discomfort for awhile. People strive so hard to make their lives comfortable. And then, when something uncomfortable happens, they don’t know how to handle the situation.
When my daughter was eight years old, and playing recreation softball, she experienced the thrill of hitting a game winning run in the bottom of the last inning with two outs. I wondered how she would handle it if she “failed” in that same situation. Well, less than a week later, she did exactly that – struck out in the final inning with runners in scoring position. She experienced one of the purest byproducts of failure – a lesson in humility. She realized she was not always going to be the hero. Yes, she cried that day. And then I hummed the chorus from a Mark Knopfler song, The Bug, “Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. Sometimes it all comes together, sometimes you’re gonna lose it all. Sometimes you’re a Louisville Slugger, sometimes you’re the ball.” She smiled, and then laughed … lesson learned.
At our earliest ages, the possibility of a failure is rarely considered when trying something new. But as an adult, it becomes a key to deciding whether or not to press forward on unfamiliar ground. When was the last time you tried something new – something you had never done before? Something that made you feel unsafe or uncomfortable? When faced with something new there is a feeling of awkwardness at the start – a period of discomfort. But, I’ve found if you think of those feelings as a bridge you must cross – in order to get to something better – it becomes easier to accept them.
The next time you experience discomfort when attempting something new, imagine you are Indiana Jones in The Temple of Doom, and you’re faced with crossing a rope bridge spanning a deep chasm. It’s swaying wildly back and forth. If you’ve ever been on a rope bridge, you know the first step is the hardest. But then you grab the side, get the feel of the swaying motion, and after a few steps you’re moving better. By the time you reach the end you’re scurrying right along. Your feeling of awkwardness was overcome as you made your way across the bridge.
I dare you to find some rope bridges to cross in your life.
Next Time: My terrific college failure.
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