Reflections on the first year: failure is a myth

One of the lessons that I learned really well while I was in school is that failure exists and that it is something to be feared.

The lesson is both simple and omnipresent: you either pass a test and thus “succeed”, or you fail a test and have to deal with the repercussions on your grade, your GPA, and potentially, your future. For most of us this lesson begins in the 1st grade and continues until we complete our education.

Failure is usually taught as being permanent. I know that if I were to fail a test, I was rarely offered the chance to learn, fix my mistakes, take the test again, and succeed.

In the short run, this lesson serves a purpose. It gets students to study. I was afraid of failure and its repercussions so I studied hard and performed well. As a student I got decent grades but my academic performance was motivated as much by a desire to avoid failure, as it was to actually learn.

I think this is common. I think that virtually all students learn the lesson that failure is real and needs to be avoided.

But this is a horrible thing to teach people. It is a complete lie.

Believing in failure, especially the type of permanent failure we are taught about in school, teaches us shy away from risk, especially if the risk involves something important like our dreams and passions.

This leaves many of us stuck. We want to chase after dreams and big goals, but we are afraid that if we try we may not succeed.

So the question that we have to ask ourselves is: how do we avoid failure?

The answer: don’t believe in it.

Over the course of the past year, I have happily learned that the “succeed on your first try or fail” scenario school so convincingly teaches us is real, is nothing more than a myth. Life does not work that way. We don’t try something once, pass or fail, and then never have another chance to succeed. In fact life works in the exact opposite way. It is actually incredibly hard to make a mistake so significant that it becomes permanent.

What really happens is we try something and we get outcomes. Sometimes the outcomes are great (a job offer, a standing ovation, a legendary party) and sometimes they aren’t (a rejection, the sound of crickets chirping, a boring night with acquaintances), but neither outcome is permanent. You can always apply for a different job, address a new audience, and throw another party.

In reality, failure is a choice. If we do not like our initial outcome, and we stop trying, then we have failed. But nothing has made us stop trying except for ourselves. It was a choice we made.

All we have to do to live our dreams is to act on them and refuse to accept failure. Whenever we get results and outcomes that we do not like we can look at the process, tweak a few of the variables, and try again.

As long as you refuse to accept failure, success becomes inevitable.

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2 COMMENTS ON THIS POST To “Reflections on the first year: failure is a myth”

  1. Will August 6, 2010 at 11:22 pm

    A lot of what you wrote resonates with me when I am in my classroom. Creating a classroom culture in which failure doesn’t exist is tremendously difficult because so many kids haven’t been told they can be successful. They’ve known years of hearing they aren’t good enough. This has, in turn, caused them to shy away from risk because not being “successful” hurts too much. You are dead on with your words. I think I might even steal that last line and put it up in my classroom.

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