Friday, January 13, 2012

Today Is Your Lucky Day

"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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