Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Our Greatest Glory

"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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Carrie said...

I think it's also important to equip them with tools necessary to have those experiences. For instance I prepared my son for what he would face going to kindergarten (talking about what would happen and such) so he could approach the experience with confidence.

Scott said...

Some great thoughts here, Tom. I agree that sometimes we adults think we're "helping" by avoiding the failure when we would help more by allowing the failure. We can also help a child think thru a failure. "I wonder why the building fell. Waht could you do differently?" (If the child is old enough for that type of reflection.)

Thanks for stimulating my thinking once again.

Play for Life said...

Sometimes Tom I think parents simply find it easier on themselves to keep their children from falling/failing, than helping them when they do ... and as a parent I totally get that.
Donna :) :)

Jeanne Zuech said...

Thank you, Tom, for this reflective post. I agree with your points. In those "Uh,ohh..." moments, we see ourselves having done Exactly That Thing that the child is about to do and instinctively want to guard them from the pain/surprise/frustration. It reminds me of story of someone "helping" a cocoon open before it was supposed to and - of course - therefore the butterfly could not fly :(

Teacher Tom said...

Oh, I definitely think it takes a conscious effort for most of us to see a child about to fail/fall/make a mistake and just let it happen. Instinctively, we don't want them to be "hurt" and so reach out to protect them. And, I think (at least it was true for me as a young parent and a new teacher), we feel like a bit of a failure ourselves when they fail. No, it takes a conscious effort.

Janet Lansbury recently posted about how she'd realized that, for children, "stuck" isn't a good or bad thing, just another "state of being." I like that: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2010/07/a-lesson-from-babies-its-okay-to-struggle/

Marla McLean, Atelierista said...

This post was bittersweet for me. Today I taught art workshops in a correctional facility for youth. I find your post comforting while I process the complexity of at risk and incarcerated youth.

Marghanita Hughes said...

I absolutely love this post Tom. It has taken me a long time to realize that failure is very much part of life and character building. You can't truly succeed without perseverance. Thank you for sharing.

Aunt Annie said...

Tom, I totally agree- see here:

It's interesting to note that there's also some feeling that we need to wait before 'picking our kids up' after they've failed; if we 'rescue' them immediately, they can lose the chance to 'self-recover' and so not learn that they are resilient. So it's good to hold back that little bit longer and just see if they can recover on their own before helping them.

Sounds easy. Is hard!!! :D