Failing Well

I found myself on ice regularly this winter. At the school’s rink, to be more precise, every Sunday afternoon with my three year old daughter taking advantage of the town’s “Family Skate.” I don’t really know how to skate so it’s overstating it to say that I was teaching her to skate. What I could do was get her out to the middle of the rink and encourage her to try to move. Of course, the first few times she tried to do so she fell down, which came as a bit of a shock. Eventually she wanted off and eventually I complied. Absent the ability to instruct any more specifically about what to do, I found myself repeating, “But if you don’t fall down, you’re not learning.”

The unwitting truth in that phrase reminded me that it applies to people who are thirteen and thirty as much as it does to three year olds. Falling down on the ice—failing—hurts. It hurts physically (I put myself in the infirmary as a boarding school student trying too aggressively to learn to skate…and hadn’t skated again until this winter) and emotionally (I haven’t yet met the person who enjoys falling in public). And the same goes for falling down in other contexts—whether learning in a classroom or leading a school. But, at the risk of a cliché, it’s from the process of attempting and failing that we learn. Which means that one of the most important things we can do as educators, parents, and leaders is to create the context within which it is safe to go through this process and to do so publicly.

A book about leadership that I’ve been reading recently, James Kouzes’s and Barry Posner’s The Truth About Leadership, makes this point nicely at the adult level:

Whenever you’re challenging the status quo, whenever you’re tackling demanding problems, whenever you’re making meaningful changes, whenever you’re confronting adversity, you will sometimes fail. Despite how much you see challenge as an opportunity, despite how focused you can be, despite how driven you are to succeed, there will, no doubt, be setbacks. Think again about leaders throughout history who are remembered for their greatness. Some lost battles, some were imprisoned, some saw their businesses shut down, and most were ridiculed while trying to achieve the extraordinary. Mistakes happen. Defeats occur. Failure is inevitable. None of these are dirty words to leaders. Rather, they are signs that you’re doing something tough, exacting, and out-of-the-ordinary. That’s why you need grit. It’s also why you need to see failure as learning.

I argue that this can apply equally well to students, which means one of the tasks of teachers is to teach towards this—something that is perhaps more complicated or nuanced than teaching towards a test. In this same chapter, Kouzes and Posner quote now-famous University of Pennsylvania professor, Angela Duckworth, and her work on grit. Defined as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” grit “entails working strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity, and plateaus in progress.”

This is not to condone mediocrity or poor performance. Failing continually at the same thing is closer to madness than to learning. Instead, this speaks to the importance—for adults and students alike—to cultivate the willingness to grow, learn, experiment, and, yes, fail, even if your mom isn’t there to pick you up.