Thursday, 5 June 2014

Failure as a Means to Success

One Saturday in April this year I was going through my normal morning routine of reading the paper whilst having my breakfast. In the 'pull out' Your Weekend magazine there was an excellent article by Bess Manson on 'The F-Word'. She posed the question whether failure can actually help us reach the dizzying heights of ultimate success.

So often in the school environment children have to deal with perceived or real successes and failures. The classic one for the older children is gaining selection for sports, academic or cultural teams. Many children have their heart set on making some particular team or another. The reality is in life that we all will experience disappointments, some that will almost break our heart.

Obviously the key to supporting children so they can deal with disappointments is to build a 'growth mindset' where being optimistic and resilient is central. This won't happen overnight. Parents and teachers need to create a culture where children are supported to deal with the inevitable disappointments of life.

When children see that many famous people have had to deal with considerable struggle and failure, it puts their own expectations in perspective.  In Bess Manson's article she quotes J K Rowling (Harry Potter author) who said, "Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or to use failure that often leads to greater success. I've met people who don't want to try for fear of failing. Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly."

Rowling's first book, 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' was rejected by 12 publishing houses before it went on to become the bestselling book series in history. Elvis Presley faced rejection from the start and was told he'd be better off going back to driving trucks. Albert Einstein was expelled from school and was described as mentally slow. He was initially refused admittance to tertiary education and his PhD was turned down as irrelevant and fanciful. Dr Seuss' first book, 'And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry St' was rejected by 27 publishers before the 28th publisher sold 6 million copies of the book.
Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Louis Pasteur and so many other famous successful people experienced considerable failure.

Children need to hear these stories or similar. They need to experience disappointment as a natural part of life. We as adults need to support them through these times but not try and make everything right. Coping with failure makes our children stronger and gives them a chance to learn from their mistakes.

In her article Bess Manson quotes the Associate Professor of Psychology at Victoria University, Paul Jose. He says, "Don't run away from the consequences of disappointment or failure. Embrace your failure. Value failing. It's telling you something important-you need to keep learning."

It is important we empathise with our children when they experience disappointment and encourage them to acknowledge it themselves. This self -knowledge is essential in order to achieve lasting improvements in one's life, according to Professor Jose. We should help children not to catastrophise the situation but accept the reality of failure.

As parents, we deeply hurt for our children's disappointments but we have to be strong to help them become strong. Take for example a boy having his heart set on making a particular team. The boy is a good player and has represented his club or his suburb. He misses out on the school team(s) and comes home devastated. There are a couple of courses of action here. One is for the parent to step in and try and persuade the coach or selector to add the boy's name to the team. If the coach / selector 'caves in' what does the boy learn? He learns that when things don't go his way dad or mum will save the day. The parent robs the child of dealing with the disappointment rather than using it as an opportunity to build the boy's determination by encouraging him to work harder, give of his best and be humble (good advice for the boy though would be to let the coach know of his disappointment and that if a place comes up through injury, he'll be ready as he is going to work hard to 'step up').

I know we as teachers feel for the children who experience disappointments and behind the scenes look for ways of supporting these boys to use the experience to 'grow'. Often it is with hard work and pain we gain the resilience needed for life—tough but true.