Learning to Fail

I re-post this entry every year.  The posting has, to date, received more “likes” and comments than any other, so I sense that what I set out to say hit its target.  So for those of you who have recently marched through high school graduation activities and are on the threshold of this process, I’m hopeful that this message will have a “centering effect” for all of us seeking to be successful in parenting our kids well!

As we take a serious look at the transition, my sense is that one of the primary issues for us as parents is the fear of something we can’t imagine actually happening to our daughter or son.  Our culture is bent on the pursuit of success.  So, if that is true – and I’m convinced it is – the idea of failure is often one that we expend a lot of energy trying to avoid and helping others avoid, especially those we care deeply for.

In my First-Year Seminar course for new Freshman, we would spend an entire class period exploring the idea of “Failure” in order to expand our thinking about what it is, why it’s scary, and what we’re really afraid of – why have we been taught to avoid something that’s likely inevitable, and is actually a helpful component of the learning process?  A number of the resources we use introduce us to how necessary (read: “vital”) failure is to reaching success; no matter the topic or pursuit.  I know, it sounds counter-intuitive, but when I examine my own path, I know – and I mean, REALLY know – that it is true.  Rarely do I learn some valuable piece of instruction or awareness for life when things are going well, frankly because I’m not forced or called or required to pay attention as I do when things aren’t going as planned.

It is only when things don’t work; when I’ve gone from Plan A to B, then C, then D, that I begin to ask the hard, searching questions that lead me to new insight, or to ask for help, or start over.  I’m reminded of the great inventor, Thomas Edison.  He’s famous as much for what he created as he is for putting a new perspective on the idea of “failure.”  He believed it was essential in his pursuit of the next great discovery.  He is quoted as saying such things as, “Negative results are just what I want.  They’re just as valuable to me as positive results.  I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don’t.”  And, “I have not failed.  I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Alison Gopnik, a psychology and philosophy professor, points out that many of us now approach the role of raising humans like carpenters. In short, we try to carve them into our own image of what a successful adult looks like. Her suggestion? Think of yourself more akin to a gardener — you create the right conditions and let nature do the rest. “Our job as parents is not to make a particular kind of child,” she writes in her recent book, The Gardener and the Carpenter. “Instead, our job is to provide a protected space of love, safety, and stability in which children can flourish.”

So as I was recently reading Anne Lamott’s new book, Some Assembly Required (Riverhead books, 2012), in which she and her son co-write about the parent-child relational transition in ways only Anne can do, I heard her speaking directly to our parental desire to – with the greatest of intentions and hope – keep our children from getting hurt.  In doing so, we, in essence, may be keeping them from experiencing life (read: failing) in ways that prepare them for the very life they are meant to live.  Her good friend Bonnie says to her, “You’ve got to learn to let go and let your children fall, and fail.  If you try to protect them from hurt, and always rush to their side with Band-Aids, they won’t learn about life and what is true, what works, what helps, and what are real consequences of certain kinds of behavior.  When they do get hurt, which they will, they won’t know how to take care of their grown selves.  They won’t even know where the aspirin is kept.”

So, in keeping with our on-going conversation about how to “show-up” well in this relational transition with our daughter and sons as they become the humans they came here to BE, take a time-out to examine your motives for comments, actions, and the like!  Are they designed to express your agenda for how your children’s life “should be”, or are they oriented toward your daughter’s/son’s ever-developing (and necessary) sense of self-competency.

I’ll let Anne’s son Sam, usher us out today with one of his growing realizations about the life he was living – I can’t say it more clearly!: “I see the hardest patches as stepping stones for what I will need as I go out from here.”

Peace for the Journey, Dane

Author: Dane

Dane Anthony’s career in higher education spans 30 years on both public and private university campuses. In addition to serving as a faculty member, he has worked in the areas of Counseling, Residence Life & Housing, Student Health & Wellness, New Student & Parent Orientation, Parent Programming, and University Chaplaincy. Dane & his wife have 3 grown children and currently reside in Nashville, TN.

One thought on “Learning to Fail”

  1. Thank you so much for your presentation at Orientation. I have been reflecting on elements of my transition with my son about to start his freshman year and now I have several new tools in my toolkit. First, I am not alone and second, I need to have confidence in the parenting I have done these last 18 years! I will be back to reaffirm these two things by reading your blog.

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