17 June 2009: Success requires learning from failure

Success requires learning from failure

One of my favorite lines comes from the great English poet Robert Browning, who in “Andrea del Sarto” proclaims, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp / Or what’s a heaven for?”

That line holds power, encouraging us to reach beyond what is easily accomplished, to push our limits, to excel in ways we might have thought improbable if not impossible.

It also infers a truism: success often results only after countless efforts that failed to achieve the desired goal. In short, we fail every time until the moment of success.

Success is, then, a one-time event, whereas failure is the norm.

In his column in the New York Times magazine I referenced last week, Matthew B. Crawford, writes, “The visceral experience of failure seems to have been edited out of the career trajectories of gifted students.”

Describing one aspect of failure as a “visceral experience” implies a couple things. First, visceral, meaning deeply emotional, finds its root in viscera, internal body parts—heart, abdomen, thorax—the places we literally feel emotion: e.g., heartache and gut feeling.

Second, Merriam-Webster also defines visceral as “non-intellectual, instinctive, or unreasoning.”

Success and failure, accordingly, become emotive experiences rather than objective and reasoned unless you are Vulcan. Even if success brings one a sense of satisfaction rather than a kick-up-your-heels reaction, it, nonetheless, correlates to feelings.

I remember painfully well the visceral experience of failure while learning to drive a roofing nail with two swings: the first to set and the second to drive it in. Each time I missed, my thumb experienced each failed attempt literally and viscerally.

Teachers, of course, strive to help students find success. But over the years, that ideal has been corrupted by denying students their natural right to experience failure viscerally.

At times, it’s due to “warm and fuzzy” teachers who lose sight of their professional obligations.

Most often, it emanates from “helicopter parents,” the opposite of the “no-show” parents, that constantly hover over their dear ones, on guard to protect them from any sort of injury, real or imagined.

Correlated to “helicoptering” are two other attitudes: “my child is special” and “my child is gifted.”

They, of course, fail to understand what every good teacher realizes: every child is special, every child is gifted, and every child needs to learn for him or herself how to achieve success and how to accept failure in pursuit of success.

In our quest to provide a non-punitive education, we avoid calling non-success failure. Instead, we use euphemisms such as “working towards proficiency,” which is necessary and good particularly when dealing with students who enter the classroom already burdened with a poor sense of self.

But what of those who enter the classroom not with a sense of poor self-esteem, but with an I-can-do-no-wrong sense of superiority?

Crawford sets the nail with the above passage and drives it home when he asks, “Why not encourage gifted students to learn a trade, if only in the summers, so that their fingers will be crushed once or twice before they go on to run the country?”

The reason stems from parents who have and are passionate about passing their own sense of entitlement to their progeny. Smashed fingers, literally or figuratively, are beneath them and not to be part of their experience.

In that same poem, Browning challenges us: “Dream? Strive to do, and agonize to do / And fail in doing.”

Poor grades have lost much, if not all, their sting, which is not a bad thing given that grading is an anachronistic, relative, and, therefore, meaningless system of rewards and punishments. What once elicited an intrinsic reaction no longer holds sway.

Higher performing students react to poor scores less often from personal disappointment but more from fear of their parents. Average to lower performing ones often react with a shrug and even, on occasion, a sense of defiant pride because they realize something most adults don’t: failing a test is about as catastrophic as skinning one’s knees and elbows when somersaulting from a skateboard.

It is our responsibility to put students in situations where both success and failure are potentials and allow them their right to feel not only the exhilaration of hard-won success but also disappointing failure, not in a shameful manner, but with firm resolution that next time will be the time for success. And if it is not, then the next next-time will be.

So, my essential question to helicopter parents who are so fearful their child might become battered, bruised, and blemished: What’s wrong with experiencing failure?

To be continued.

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