It’s okay to fail.
There it is. The painful truth that requires a huge leap of faith for me. To acknowledge this to be true, that there are actually times when choosing to fail is the right thing, this I have never have believed. I haven’t been conditioned in any way to see any value in choosing to fail. Failure is, well, it’s failure. It’s inherently negative.
That’s the very problem, so articulately described in Christine Carter’s book Raising Happiness. If we can’t appreciate the journey, then, of course, failure is scary and to be avoided at all costs. Even if the cost is trying and learning. But not only is it scary, one could also argue it’s egotistical. Why is it natural for us to assume we should succeed at everything we set out to do? Because–that’s how we are raised. How many times have our parents told us, or have you said to your own children: You can do anything you set your mind to. I know I’ve heard it countless times in my own life, and yes, I say it often to my preschooler. That is how we are conditioned to think. As Carter says, “our culture usually values achievement over effort.” There was an excellent discussion about this in the comments of my post earlier this week on the affects of perfectionism on us and our children.
I wrote in that post that Chapter 3 of the book seriously knocked my socks off. Not only did it teach me how my perfectionist tendencies are hurting me, but how that can translate into future problems for my own children. But, the second part of the chapter, where she discussed the value of failure was a serious eye-opener.
The funny thing is, I’ve spent my entire life wishing that I could believe second best to be good enough . I’ve never been very good at it, even though I assure you, I’ve been second best, even last, many times in my life. I just was never comfortable with it. I would dwell on my failures, constantly turn over in my mind how I could have done something differently. While I don’t think that is entirely without benefit, we should learn from our mistakes, I do think knowing that the important part was the learning, and not the failing, would have been tremendously empowering. I never knew that. Nobody taught me that. To me the judgement came from what I’d actually achieved, not from what the effort of trying.
In the book, Carter argues:
Perfectionism is the dark side of consistent hard work; it produces a chronic feeling that nothing is good enough and the worst thing in the world is failure.
Does this ring true for you? It does for me. My life is coloured by a fear of taking risks that I think could lead to mistake. If I thought I wouldn’t be good at it, I wouldn’t even try. I have trouble making a simple decision if I’m not entirely sure how something will turn out.
I don’t want my children to feel like that.
I guess that means that, in a sense, I do want my children to know that they can do whatever they set their mind to, BUT if they don’t, I want them to feel secure in the knowledge that it was good that they tried. I already see how hard this is for my preschooler. If something doesn’t come easy, he’s quickly frustrated. He’s been known to throw himself on the ground in disgust. He’s not even 4! Why would he feel so invested in actually being good at things the first time? Shouldn’t there be some joy in the learning?
Christine Carter has opened my eyes to the importance of teaching my son the skills he needs to deal with the challenges and mistakes he makes in his life. Failure is not “something to be avoided at all costs.” I want both my boys to know how to identify what went wrong, to learn, to feel confident trying again, and to feel comfortable walking away when that is actually the best choice. To me, these would be invaluable skills that would set them a part. They would empower my children, make them feel less tied to things that are providing no value, while at the same time fueling a healthy sense of ambition.
“Kids who are free from fear of failure don’t need the good opinions of others to get through life,” says Carter. I say, amen to that.
If you are interested in reading more discussion of Raising Happiness, head on over to Motherese. There have been some very insightful comments and perspectives about Chapters 4-6 that I’m you would enjoy. I’d also love to hear your thoughts about the value of failure. Have you ever had to make the conscious choice to fail. What helped you do that? Will you teach your children these skills? If so, how do you think you’ll do that?