The Gift of Failure

It is drilled into us from childhood, sometimes explicitly, sometimes not, that failure is bad.  No one wants to be a failure, fail a test, or fail to live up to live up to expectations. 

When I returned to the college classroom after about a decade away, I had forgotten how much it is on the minds of students.  At its worst a failing grade on a test could conceivably result in not passing a class and having to take it again, which may require more time in school and potentially another student loan.  But even more simply I’ve seen it cause dents in self-confidence and less engagement in class and assignments.

Many students seem to come into class with the assumption that they will do well the first time, especially those who have historically done well in school.  A common refrain is that if it’s a 100-level class it must be easy.  They do not necessarily see education as a journey of trial and error or an endeavor where it may actually take a while to grasp difficult concepts.

And when I began to notice this, I thought back to one of the few things I tried to learn from scratch as an adult.  But first, a bit of history.

I can remember when I was little going to the local tennis courts with my parents and younger sister Erin.  We each had a wooden racquet that had been cut down to make it more manageable for our tiny hands to control. Erin and I practiced a lot, had lessons and played competitively through high school (she even went on to play in college.) But we also did gymnastics, played softball and tried other sports too.  As an adult I never really remembered how hard it was to become good at any of those things.

Fast forward to a few years ago and an itch to try something new.  Trapeze.  I was obviously much older, definitely much creakier, and much to my chagrin, massively less flexible.  But even being aware of all of those things I was still deeply dismayed that the first trick, which most people in my first class managed to do that same day, did not come so easily to me.  It took several more classes before I could do it. It was a huge disappointment for someone who couldn’t remember ever doing so poorly at a physical endeavor.

But after a brief mourning period I remembered that I couldn’t remember how hard it must have been to get good at tennis and softball.  Of course it must have taken many hundreds of hours that somehow were forgotten in the recesses of my aging brain.

So I try to start every semester with a quick conversation about failure. I tell my students that I want them to do well, that they certainly can if they try and ask questions and try again. I try to stress that failure to grasp a concept the first time, or not getting a good grade on a test doesn’t mean they’re failing.  That may only happen if they stop trying to overcome the difficulties, if they don’t see the hiccups as a learning opportunity, and if they don’t ask for help when they need it.

I don’t want them to expect failure, of course.  But I do want them to see that it can be helpful, however unusual, unpleasant, or painful it may be.  And believe me, learning trapeze in your 40’s provided its fair share of painful moments.