How to Fail

Do You Know How to Fail?

Fear of Failure Can Prevent Us Succeeding

When I was teaching primary children, I noticed that most mothers were very good at teaching their children how to succeed. If, for example, Jimmy won a race at sport’s day, his mummy would smile and clap and tell him: “Well done! You were brilliant!” If Jimmy went on to do a victory dance in front of his class and make a ‘loser’ sign to the child who came last, his mummy would tell him no, that’s not the right way to behave, you mustn’t be a big-head.

I watched children being praised and taught not to be conceited when they passed exams, starred in performances, and painted wonderful pictures. Parents seemed to do a pretty good job of teaching their children how to succeed.

But what about when they failed? What about when Polly came last in the race? Or failed her piano exam? Or wasn’t given a part in the school play? Or painted really awful pictures? How did parents react then, and were the children taught how to fail well? Mostly not. Mostly, the parents made excuses as to why it wasn’t Polly’s fault, or why the system was unfair—or else they lied, and said that Polly was the best anyway, and that her grey/green splodged picture was beautiful.

Do you think it matters? I personally think that it’s a big problem, both for individuals and for society. For most of us, failing at things is a big part of life, and we are more likely to fail than succeed and if we know how to fail, then it doesn’t knock us on our backs, we simply accept that we have failed and carry on.

I am very aware of this as I start to learn Greek as a mature (very mature!) student. I might fail. It’s a long time since I took an exam or tried to learn a new skill, and I might not succeed. But knowing that I might fail shouldn’t stop me trying. If I fail, it will be because I am not intelligent enough. Sometimes, we are not clever enough—this is an excellent thing to learn.

Our society likes to make excuses. It seems to be an innate part of being human. Way back at the beginning of time in the book of Genesis, we read about people failing and making excuses. Whether you think Genesis is a book to take literally, and Adam was a man who physically existed, or whether you think it’s a story to show us why relationships exist as they do, the first story is very clear. Adam messed up (he ate a forbidden fruit) and when challenged he made an excuse: “The woman YOU gave me made me do it.” It wasn’t his fault. Except, it was.

If we always make excuses—the teacher was rubbish, I didn’t have time to study, I couldn’t afford the right textbooks—then things are never our fault. And when we blame others, we start to feel resentment. I think this causes all sorts of problems for society. If the bus drivers, shop assistants, manual workers all think that they are as intelligent and capable as people with more interesting jobs, then they will resent those people, and feel angry at the pay discrepancies. If people have not learnt to fail, they will avoid competition in case they don’t win. They will feel defeated when they don’t get the job or promotion they feel they deserve. They will feel angry with the world for the things they don’t achieve.

Fear of failure also makes people stop trying. They won’t sing the song they composed, they won’t audition for the fashion show, they won’t try for the promotion at work because they might fail.

I am not talking about whether society is fair. I realise that in some cases, people have underachieved due to an unfair system, but not always. Sometimes people fail at school because they don’t do their homework, or because they are not very clever. Sometimes people come last in all the races at sport’s day because they never practise, or they eat unhealthily, or they are simply born with an uncoordinated body that is rubbish at all sports. People fail music exams because they don’t practise or they have no talent.

I believe these problems start in childhood. Some parents at one school I worked in suggested that we shouldn’t have ‘winners’ at sport’s day, and everyone should receive a rosette. How does that help to prepare a person for not always winning? Some parents will buy all children a gift on a sibling’s birthday, because they don’t want the younger brother to feel left out. They always let their children win at games. Everything the child produces is praised. When the child messes up, they make excuses on their behalf. The child is not being taught how to fail. They are being taught that failing is wrong.

Parents, when you play games with your child, don’t let them win. You can play badly, so they enjoy the game, but don’t always let them win—that is not what will happen in real life and it’s sort of lying. (My own mother absolutely believed this, and would always completely annihilate us when we played cards with her!) Acknowledge that your child is not very good at sports/art/music/maths or whatever. Encourage them to still try, but let them know that not being the best is okay. If they fail at something because they didn’t study, or practise, or try, then be honest about that. Let them get used to knowing that yes, they failed the spelling test, and yes, it was their fault because they played on the computer instead of learning the words—but you love them anyway. Teach your children to say sorry. When we are adults, we will sometimes drive badly and bump a wall, or be tired and snap at someone rudely, or forget someone’s birthday. We should accept the fault and say that we are sorry. It is so much easier to accept and forgive another person’s mistakes if they acknowledge the fault and apologise, rather than making excuses.

Accepting that we fail does not stop us trying to achieve, but perhaps it helps us to aim more realistically. I have trouble learning unrelated facts and symbols. I also find abstract concepts difficult to understand and manipulate. Hence, I will never be a great physicist. There’s nothing wrong with that, it is partly the way I was made, and partly because I was lazy at school and never bothered to learn the fundamentals. You too will have things that you can’t do—and that too is possibly partly your own fault and partly not. I think we are much healthier and happier when we accept our failures, try to learn from the experience and move on, rather than perpetually making excuses and self-justifying.

This week, I challenge you to acknowledge your failures—and think about how you could possibly correct them in the future. And if you have children, please teach them how to fail well. It might make them better, happier, adults.

Thanks for reading—and do share your own views in the comments below.

Love, Anne x

Anne E. Thompson

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Ironically, I have just ‘failed’ when posting this blog! I always write blogs ahead of time, and this was meant to be posted mid-October. But I forgot to change the date before completion, and so it went to all my followers today. Which must feel like spam as they have already received one blog from me today! Apologies.

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