Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Failing To Succeed

"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes," Oscar Wilde

When our girl Josephine was a baby, we thought it was hilarious when she would miss wildly in her repeated attempts to get her thumb into her mouth, poking herself in the eye, or losing track of it as her hand passed out of her vision. She cried in frustration sometimes, and sometimes we helped her get her thumb where she wanted it. What made us laugh was that she just kept trying, day after day, often making the same mistakes over and over. It was so human.

"Our greatest glory is not in never failing but in rising every time we fail." --Confucius

Failure is a universal experience. From the moment we're born we fail and fail and fail until we succeed. That is the calculus of learning: 

f(ail)x + 1s(uccess) = s. 

At first when Josephine succeeded in getting her thumb in her mouth, it was purely because the law of averages dictated she would, but with repetition she began to tilt the odds in her favor until after a few weeks, she'd mastered this self-soothing skill. 

All real learning is built upon failure.

It's so tempting as teachers to save our students from failing. We see that adding that one last block will cause the tower to fall and surreptitiously reach out a hand to hold it up. Eventually he'll have to build that building that falls, why not let it be now? We fudge the die count in a board game so the child doesn't lose yet again. Eventually she will have to lose that game, why not let it be now? We try to catch them when they fall. Eventually she will take that fall, why not let it be now? We can't help ourselves as adults, sometimes we save them, but we also have to know that each time we do it, we're robbing them of experience, which as Wilde implies is another word for "mistake."

And Oscar Wilde knew about failure, having filed for bankruptcy, but he was in good company: Rembrandt, Mark Twain, Thomas Paine, Walt Disney (multiple times), Thomas Edison (multiple times), and even three of our presidents, Grant, Lincoln, and McKinley turned to the courts for bankruptcy protection.

When a reporter asked Edison how it felt to have failed over a thousand times in his quest to invent the lightbulb, he famously answered, "I didn't fail a thousand times. The lightbulb was an invention with a thousand steps."

As human beings, we are not products of our successes any more that we are of our failures. I often tell the parents of my students that their job isn't to keep their kid from falling, but rather to to help them up when they do. Of course, we save them when we can, but each time we do we merely stave off the inevitable.

The tree of success grows in the soil of failure.

Everyone fails, and we might as well learn to laugh, not only because it's human, but because this time we might succeed.

"Today is your lucky day." --Will Durant

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Juliet Robertson said...

I'm a big fan of failure too. It builds resilience and determination. Maybe it's because I enjoy learning the hard way!

I'm going to chip in with a few more quotes:

"Nobody's perfect, but who wants to be a nobody anyway!"

"Never worry about falling flat on your face. At least you are moving forward."

A person who makes no mistakes makes nothing.

A big thumbs up to your daughter, Josephine!

Scott said...

You are so right, Tom. We don't want to see kids fail so we rob them of opportunities to learn. Or we teach them not to try something unless they know they will succeed (which usually means not trying at all).

Here's to failure!

Unknown said...

So true, Tom. I think one of the occasional roadblocks to my teaching is the parents reluctance to allow the kids to fail once in a while. We have to let them fail once in a while or they won't learn the important lessons that are vital to everyday life! Thanks!

Play for Life said...

As an early childhood educator I totally agree with everything you've written Tom ... then, as a parent I totally understand that instinct to protect. It can be a fine line in the sand sometimes and I've seen many parents really struggle with this - sometimes coming back to bite them in later years when they have older children who want the world served up the them on a silver platter!
Donna :) :)

Deborah Stewart said...

Wow! You have some excellent quotations here! I think I will print them all up into little posters for my wall. I know you are talking early childhood but I think I needed to read this more for myself today:) I know that I am in the process of taking those 1000 little steps!

Linda Setlik Horner said...

Deborah, I think a lot of adults need to hear this message, not in dealing with their children but with other adults.
When you think about it what do other preschoolers do if another makes a mistake such as putting one too many blocks on a tower and it falls or if one can't get the hang of balancing a bike and falls? If the preschoolers even pay attention to the children who are 'failing' they may try to help them build it up or ask if they are okay. Very rarely do I see preschool children judging the worthiness of another based on those 'failures.' Why then do they grow up to be adults that look down upon someone who doesn't succeed in the way they think they should?
Heaven knows I've had more than my share of failure in life. It would be much easier to learn from and move on if adults around me wouldn't keep it around to haunt me.

Deborah Stewart said...

Perhaps sometimes adults just feel better when they point out the failures of others...

I suppose this is why, in part,we want children to discover how to overcome failure and as they do, realize the intrinsic rewards.

Jason, as himself said...

Thank you for a reminder of this fundamental truth.

Regency Kindergarten said...

I love your post, it makes me to stop for a while and re-thinking, evaluating : what I already reacted to my daughter and to my students when I met that kind of situations. Sometimes can't help it.

'LOVE' is sometimes making us over-protecting to someone. Especially to our children.

There is a phrase : A doctor dad cannot do a surgery to his patient son.

Launa Hall said...

Nice! Needed this reminder today. Thanks!