Failure is a Good Thing?

Two things happened this week. First I began reading Steve Harvey’s Act Like a Success, Think Like a Success: Discovering Your Gift and the Way to Life’s Riches. Second I stumbled upon this video. Both times, I was reminded about the importance of failure. In his book, Steve Harvey talks about the countless failures he has had in his career. Some of them were really big such as completely bombing in front of thousands of people. He even writes about how in the beginning he lost every single comedian competition he entered. An interesting thought crept into my mind as he spoke about his failures. While I’ve not had such great endeavors as he has, I thought about my own endeavors. I realized I never saw my failures as failures. I’ve never sat down and thought, “Wow I sucked” or “Wow I am a huge failure” or “That was a huge loss.”  I’ve always just gone quickly to analyzing and thinking what I could do better next time. What’s my next move? I’ve never cared about the product, but about the growth I’ve experienced while doing.  When I was in university, I was researching something that I would end up presenting at a convention. I recall having my advisor looking over my work. He was asking me a lot of questions and I realized I had a lot of work to redo and more research to do. However, instead of feeling glum about it I was excited to see what I would end up doing with my new found perspective.  I was already a full time student, had a part time job and yet many weeks I worked 35 plus hours on my research. I could have been angry that I had to almost start all over again after this conversation, but instead I took it in stride. Once I had completed the research, I wasn’t that excited. The excitement for me had been the journey. I enjoyed thinking about every aspect of designing the experiment.  

In the video, Sara Blakely talks about how her father celebrated her failures because it means she went out there and did something new. She tried.  I love that perspective. I’ve never taken the time to rejoice in my failures. I’ve always just moved on to the next thing, but how true. At least I tried and had a fun time doing so.  All of this reminded me of my time spent teaching third grade. Currently kids are tested so much that that test mentality is ingrained in their brains. They’ve had teachers tell them how important the test is because they want to keep their job. I am not blaming the teachers. It is sad that in some states the tests are a part of their evaluation and it leads to stress and things they would not normally do. However, all of this has worked to ingrain that mentality into the minds of children. They believed they had to always have the right answers.  When I first took over the class, the kids did not participate much. They didn’t want to risk looking foolish by not saying the right thing. This right thing is usually some “out there” idea. In the minds of students, it’s like this out there thing they could never say. They are not the “smart” one in the class. I remember one day having a deep conversation with the kids. I looked at them and I said, “I really don’t care about right answers. I just want to see you try.” I told them how at first no one knows anything. That there were things I was still learning and that that is a good place to be in- not knowing all of the answers. I had a girl look at me and say how she wished she knew everything and could always have the right answers. I looked at her and said, “But how boring that would be. You’d have nothing left to learn.” It is in the act of doing where the most fun is had. I always explained that I wanted to see them try, and if they wanted to try but were not sure of how to go about it (say like a math problem) to just raise their hand anyway and we’d work on it together.  This meant that we all had to think out loud about how to solve the problem.  It wasn’t just about having the right answer, but about the thought process. How do we go about solving a problem?

By the time I left, I had happy kids that enjoyed saying their thoughts about the poetry we’d read during read aloud time. Kids that had not started off being confident in math, but by the end of it didn’t mind participating and trying to figure it out. I got to hear their ideas and I was impressed with what 9 year olds had to say. As I left, I was sad because I knew their teacher and their teacher did care about right answers. Their teacher did get angry when kids did not have the right answers. To her, it means they were not listening rather than not understanding. I’d hear her yell out how to do something when she would be exasperated by the kids’ inability to do something. I think this attitude stifles creativity. It stifles growth and it certainly does not create an atmosphere where kids can believe they can do the impossible. To stretch themselves out a little farther. To feel comfortable within the uncomfortable because you understand it will lead to a better place of understanding.  Again, I don’t blame the teachers. I think this is created by the current high stakes atmosphere that has been created. However, I do think we need a change. I want little kids to grow up okay with failure because failure is what teaches us what we’re doing wrong on our way to figuring out how to do it right. 

July 24 2016