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Learning to fail

By Builder in Culture
Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 02:11:55 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

Our society places a great amount of emphasis on success. Throughout my education (which is now, thankfully quite a distance behind me), I was always taught to succeed at any cost.

In the real world though, we can't all be winners. Why is dealing with failure not considered important enough to teach ?

Sure, we'd all like to be winners. We'd all like to be success stories. But we can't. By definition for there to be winners, there need to be losers. Society chooses to focus on the winners, and I guess that's important. Focusing on people who triumph is a good way of inspiring others to triumph.

But for every big winner, there are a dozen big losers. These people did not succeed. They ate the right cereal, wore the right suit and still managed to fail. And if they are anything like me, their upbringing did not give them the skills to deal with this. Through my whole life I have been encouraged to succeed. So far, I'm still slightly ahead of the game and I'm still holding my own. But I've had some pretty big failures and I expect to have some more. For the most part, I've got through the failures on my own or with the help of others (friends and on odd occasions, family).

I understand the importance of encouraging people to succeed. You don't want a world of people who can't even be bothered to try. But surely giving people the skills to deal with failure, learn from it and move on should receive more attention. I believe that if more people had the courage to fail, and believed that they could recover from it, then more people would be prepared to take bigger chances. Big chances have often resulted in great gains for humanity.

The only place in my education where we were taught to deal with failure was on the sports field. This works well for people who are physically inclined. They learn to work as a team, and they (hopefully) learn to recover from failures. You don't win every match or tournament. But hopefully you try harder next time.

What about those kids who aren't drawn to the sports field. How can we teach them about failure and how to survive it? How can we teach people about second chances and going on in the face of adversity? I'm interested to see what people here think about this. Is it an important issue, or is it just me ?


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Is learning to fail an important skill?
o Yes, we should all know to give up hope now 10%
o Yes, we should know that we can try things and if they fail, still go on 83%
o No, we need to stay focused on succeeding 6%

Votes: 49
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Learning to fail | 28 comments (23 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
Focusing on doing well is very important (4.20 / 10) (#4)
by jesterzog on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 08:20:51 AM EST

I think it depends on how you approach it, because the idea of striving to win at all costs definitely has some merit to it.

Where I am as a post-graduate student I see it a lot. I'm typically a B+/A- grade student because really, that's what I'm content with. I focus more on the activities I enjoy doing than the activities that might help me get more perfect grades. On the other hand, I know several of the people around me would be absolutely gutted if they had a B+/A- average, because they're in the frame of mind not to accept less than an A+ for anything - A at the worst.

The result is that they have a really good grade average, and they're getting scholarships and recognition that I'm not. And most of it can be put down to the attitude of not accepting average marks. If you try to make it okay for people to accept less than the best, that's what you'll get.

There's a similar type of philosophy for most things. If you're driving down the road thinking:

i am not going to drive off the road.
i am not going to drive off the road.

.. chances are very high that you're vastly increasing your chance of driving off the road. There's a division between your conscious and sub-conscious mind, and the bulk of that message is all about driving off the road. So all that the sub-conscious is seeing is:

drive off the road.
drive off the road.

A much better strategy to avoid driving off the road (if it means something to you, of course), is to be thinking:

i am going to stay on the road.
i am going to stay on the road.

With this in mind, I don't think it's a good idea to explicitly teach children that it's okay to fail. If it's done in the wrong way, and you can bet it will be many times over in such a massive system, everyone will be repeating over and over in their head that it's okay to fail. They might be aiming for some form of success on the outside, but just wait until the sub-conscious mind takes over and compare the results.

Like you've said though, it's not possible for everyone to come out first. The thing about most schooling systems is that they automatically try to rank people in a one-dimensional scale. Seriously, we're a society that still uses a single digit number indicating people's intelligence to judge a massive amount about what they're capable of.

I'm not about to get all whoosey and suggest that everyone's better at something, because in some ways it's true that no matter what you're good at there's always likely to be someone who's better at it than you are if you look hard enough. The problem is that if you go through life thinking that and using it as an excuse, it's no surprise that you have absolutely no chance of ever being the best. If you teach children that, they'll never have a chance at being really good at anything. Not unless they ignore you in which case why bother teaching them anyway?

I don't know what the ideal learning environment would be, but I suspect it would focus on teaching children about how to approach all problems in a general sense. I'm completely serious in saying that if you spend lots of time thinking about how well you're going to do, you'll do much better than if you spent all your time thinking about how badly you might do. It's a matter of training yourself to ignore what went on in the past, with the exception of learning from literal aspects of it. Attitude makes lots of difference, though.

When you've trained yourself to focus on good things happening in the future, you feel a lot better about yourself, too. You can move on when things don't work, and I think it pretty much fixes that problem of not being able to deal with failure.

If teaching children to think with that attitude and focus on positive aspects was part of the education system, we'd have a much more diverse, more assertive and generally more successful society. Because people would be focused on doing well.

jesterzog Fight the light

OT - Kids in the Hall (5.00 / 2) (#19)
by flimflam on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 05:46:35 PM EST

I'm sorry, I know it's completely off topic, but this just reminded me of that episode of Kids in the Hall:

Don't stick the fork in your eye...
Don't stick the fork in your eye...
Don't stick the fork in your eye...
Stick the fork in your eye...

-- I am always optimistic, but frankly there is no hope. --Hosni Mubarek
[ Parent ]
I'm not going to reply to your whole post but... (none / 0) (#22)
by sab39 on Thu Aug 30, 2001 at 01:15:46 PM EST

"Where I am as a post-graduate student I see it a lot. I'm typically a B+/A- grade student because really, that's what I'm content with. I focus more on the activities I enjoy doing than the activities that might help me get more perfect grades. On the other hand, I know several of the people around me would be absolutely gutted if they had a B+/A- average, because they're in the frame of mind not to accept less than an A+ for anything - A at the worst."

Seems to me that you've learnt an important lesson that they haven't - that it's *better* to do the things that make you *happy* than to do the things that make you "successful".

I'm 24 and I've been out of school for 3 years; I consider myself lucky to have just learned that lesson in the past year or two.

I'm not suggesting we should teach people to accept being a "failure" all their life. Merely that we should teach people to choose their priorities wisely: Consciously decide whether your priority is happiness, wealth, academic success, etc. Then you'll know where it's worth compromising (perhaps a B+ is okay after all) and where it's not (I really love doing X so I'm not willing to give up all my X time).
"Forty-two" -- Deep Thought
"Quinze" -- Amélie

[ Parent ]
I've gotcha coming and going (4.77 / 9) (#5)
by DesiredUsername on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 08:42:48 AM EST

First, we ARE taught how to handle failure. Kids books and TV shows are absolutely *filled* with morals on how to handle disappointment/failure. We teach little kids how to handle it when another child takes his toy or beats him up. And you mention the sports thing like nobody ever plays sports. Even kids who don't like sports (like me) play some and learn what to do when you lose.

What *I* don't understand is why we don't teach kids how to *succeed*. Oh sure, we teach them (or at least tell them) THAT we want them to succeed. And we mouth platitudes like "You can do anything you set your mind too" (like jumping to the moon?) or "You have to want it bad enough" (if a kid's parent dies does that mean the kid didn't love the parent enough?). But we don't actually teach them the real (and realistic) elements of success: education, critical thinking skills, problem solving, determination and perseverence.

Play 囲碁
or not. (4.22 / 9) (#6)
by Defect on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 09:31:54 AM EST

Sure, let's fuck up every kids' childhood by telling each and every one of them that no matter what you do you're going to end up living in shit and fighting off other jackasses for half a scrap of food. Do you know why we're so fucked up? It's because of this illusion that everyone is going to be successful if you "put your mind to it," and it's obviously not true, and when people realize that then they just give up, settle down, and try their hardest to get the slightest bit ahead for the rest of their lives.

Fuck teaching failure or success, why the hell don't we ever teach happiness or enjoyment? As soon as kids reach the age of 6 and head off to their first day of kindegarten or whatever, awards are given for accomplishments and eventually happiness becomes attached to success, when you've done something good you get a reward. And that's certainly not bad, but nowhere do i remember being allowed to just have fun. All throughout my schooling it was assignment after rigid assignment, no room for imagination or fun. All through work it's project after motherfucking project. It's the same god damned thing throughout your entire life and if you're not encouraged or "taught" to always have fun, then you're whole life is going to be one giant, lousy failure, and teaching people how to deal with it isn't going to change the outcome, it'll just make sure they accept it.

And what good is that?
defect - jso - joseth || a link
I agree on a certain level (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by ChannelX on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 01:14:05 PM EST

While I agree with you in general I think a better way to approach it is to try to teach (if its possible) *contentment*....not happiness. Its just as much of a mindfuck to think its possible to be happy all the time. We *can* show our kids that, while they might not be happy every moment, they can feel secure in who they are and what they have and that is isnt dependent on success at every turn.

"Society" in the US tries to teach us that success=anything money can buy.....nice cars, big houses...lots of "stuff". So then we have a bunch of people running around trying their damndest to keep up with the Joneses and not much else. Consumerism drives this society and its the reason so many things are fucked up.

We also see parents who constantly push their kids to be who the parents want the kids to be (usually some form of themselves they wish they would have been) instead of nurturing the kid *as they are*. We see this crap starting to come out in high school when kids split into "jocks", etc and then crucify each other. For some reason sports is viewed as more of a success than academics. Kids in band are made fun of like musical talent is some form of disease (which is even more funny when you think about how kids of all types really start to relate to music at that age). There are so many ways we could go about fixing things but I think as a whole humanity is too stupid for this.

[ Parent ]

You got a 5 from me (5.00 / 1) (#17)
by Steeltoe on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 05:22:28 PM EST

While you have an interesting language, you speak from the heart and got a great point. What's the point of living life if you're not having any <i>fun</i>? Connecting "happiness" with success or other carrots (like toys, money, drugs and sex) is a disease in today's society, born from a manipulative state of mind. When we return to our innocence, we'll discover that having fun is a basic human activity. One that we unwittingly unlearn as we grow up. Most of what we do today, we do with compulsion and addictiveness. We shy away from anything to do with being open to one another, therefore we feel lonely. It doesn't have to be that way.

I can read from your post that you had as much fun as I did at school ;-) Man, what a killer-system.

- Steeltoe
Explore the Art of Living

[ Parent ]
Every student NEEDS an "F" (4.66 / 3) (#8)
by kostya on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 11:18:59 AM EST

It was Spanish and I just didn't have time. I was smart and I had always found a way to pull my butt out of the fire. But this was a language and my college class load was just too much. And I hated the class.

I got a D-. It was stunning. I had never had anything lower than a B in my life. A D- is practically an F. I was shocked. I was stunned. I was ashamed.

And life went on. I went on to become a much more balanced individual and a better student (since I now understood my limits and how I learned). Failure can be very, very good sometimes.

I'm a firm believer that all students (especially honors students) need one F in their life. For some honors students, they have never failed academically. The first time they do it almost ends their world sometimes. I think showing people that life--which is not school--goes on is a Good Thing(tm). Better to learn it early while you can still adjust than later as an adult on the job (I've had friends melt down and become shells of what they used to be).

Veritas otium parit. --Terence
what if you don't fuck up? (none / 0) (#13)
by Defect on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 02:04:26 PM EST

You get an F for a reason, you screwed up, it's not impossible to go through schooling without getting anything lower than a B. Because of that, failing in "real life" i imagine would be all the more devastating if you happened to be able to get through all your schooling with straight A's.

Teachers and professors can't hand out F's just because it'd be good for the student, as much as they may like to.
defect - jso - joseth || a link
[ Parent ]
Huh? (none / 0) (#14)
by kostya on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 03:44:13 PM EST

Teachers and professors can't hand out F's just because it'd be good for the student, as much as they may like to.

Perhaps my wording confused you, but I'm not advocating teachers handing out F's "just because". I'm just saying it is a good experience, one that hopefully happens before they get out into the big bad world. Best to know and understand one's limits.

Veritas otium parit. --Terence
[ Parent ]
Straight A students arent necessarily bright (5.00 / 2) (#24)
by IronDragon on Sun Sep 02, 2001 at 05:50:15 AM EST

Ive met some students, ranging from valedictorian to regular honor roll alma who took only the easiest classes they could find. They had no technical ability, and never challenged themselves with mathematics, science, or advanced literature/political science.

I distinctly recall asking the valedictorian if she was going to take College-level Political Science, and she declined, saying it would kill her GPA. wtf?

I always took hard classes. Not so much because i was masochistic, or that I had some desire to develop a strong record for college acceptance, but just to learn.

I dont necessarily enjoy or condone failure. I regret my poor showing in school and college. While I try not to be a bad student, Im easily preoccupied with learning and creativity than the assigned coursework :/

Moral of the story:
High school valedictorian graduates with 4.0, doesnt know the difference between sodium and sodium chloride, and goes off to work as an airport attendant while she dreams up ways to bring happiness to the poor and hungry.

I graduate with a 1.6 GPA, go off to college and become friends with a variety of professors and tackle subjects such as animal physiology, molecular biology, programming, french, russian, and calculus. Presently I do game design, technical advisory for gaming projects, write short stories, and bring LUNIX one step closer to world domination. yay me.

Bear in mind that this is a limited comparison between fairly unusual subjects. An airhead valedictorian vs a self-taught truant. Several of my friends have succeeded in school, and I would say that they are certaintly as bright as I see myself. The point of the matter - those who truly succeed are those who seek to expand their experience and knowledge regardless of the cost to themselves.

[ Parent ]
Entrepreneurs (4.00 / 1) (#10)
by dennis on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 12:57:34 PM EST

I read a book once (don't remember title/author, sorry) that said the reason the U.S. tends to dominate economically is that failure is acceptable. An entrepreneur can build a business, go bankrupt, and try again without being a social pariah. In Japan or Europe, you get one shot, and if you don't make it you're branded a loser for life.

According to him, anyway. The book was written in back when everyone thought Japan was going to take over. Now that they've been in recession for 15 years, it looks like maybe he was on to something.

Wow, we assume the same thing about the US... (4.00 / 1) (#26)
by datamodel on Mon Sep 03, 2001 at 03:53:31 PM EST

" In Japan or Europe, you get one shot, and if you don't make it you're branded a loser for life."

In the UK this is how US society is perceived, more competitive, more success oriented, intolerant of losers. In the UK failure is a source of national pride, an artform almost... we constantly tell ourselves and everyone else how much we suck at everything - if you need further proof check any of the newspapers here (headline yesterday - UKs railways in worst condition ever during peacetime).

Being quite proud of it we do it over and over, it's all part of experiencing life - you mainly fail to do what you set out to, you only really fail if you don't learn anything from it.

I learnt that I wouldn't want to fund a company with venture capital even if they had decided they wanted to gve it to me, because of the risk and loss of control. I learnt a great deal about starting a medium sized company, about analysis, and business planning - I didn't get funded, but I apply all this to my own smaller company, and change my plans.

Also, ever hear of the "success trap"? You're successful, but plateau and can't change behaviour to become more successful, in case you fail. You're stuck, and you can't learn. Failing is (in my world, anyway) a splended learning opportunity.

[ Parent ]
Why rush.. (4.00 / 1) (#11)
by ignatiusst on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 01:13:32 PM EST

Why is it (or why should it be) necessary to prepare someone for failure? Sometimes it is necessary and (if not desireable) to learn by experience.

I could tell every college/high school student here (at k5) about the hurt, pain, betrayal, fear and uncertainty that goes with being laid off (ie: failing at my job), and they may even learn about my experience and know what to expect, but they will never be prepared for it until and unless they face it for themselves.

When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him. -- Jonathan Swift

Learning to fail? (4.00 / 1) (#15)
by mikers on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 04:49:13 PM EST

My experience with success in just about anything is that you generally have to put in all the work, effort, practice, blood, sweat and tears in advance before you can do well in anything.

Generally there isn't enough time for everything, and I don't make a clear decision on something to excel at, so usually I don't succeed.

But in the cases where I have concentrated on just ONE THING with a lot of intensity I have gotten what I wanted.

As for failure vs. success, although its true that for every winner there must be at least one looser there are a thousand levels inbetween 1st and last and in a lot of contests just completion is admirable (Ironman, ECO challenges). Considering the huge variety of things to do and learn in life and the limited time you have to do them completion should really be the primary objective and mastery only in a small percentage of those things you REALLY REALLY like.

Last, most people are lazy and complacent and okay with not trying for first (or second or not at all). Being a winner, or being first is not free. You have to compete and beat out the competion. I can't remember the quote for who said it but it went something like "75% of the battle is just showing up".

I think you just have to want something bad enough, for long enough and actually do something towards it for a long enough time in a steady manner.

Success is all around you, pick something you want to succeed in and stick with it.

Though I agree with you (5.00 / 1) (#21)
by mami on Thu Aug 30, 2001 at 10:37:28 AM EST

in theory and principle, I don't think that promoting this thread of thoughts to people who are about to fail or failed will be of any help.

There are many reasons why a person needs a long time to discover what it REALLY REALLY likes (especially if things change quickly and you are always challenged to evaluate and adjust to them) and why people can't focus on ONE THING.

To those people your advice or publicly expressed experience will shame people into thinking they are a failure when they actually are just not agreeing into getting trapped into the ONE THING, which might turn out not to be what they REALLY REALLY want.

The shame factor then is a big inhibitor not only to try (retry) something but also to isolate the "failed" person from positive social interaction with "the winners".

May be it's just the way I was raised. But I appreciated VERY much that neither my teachers, nor my parents ever actually morally put me under any pressure to succeed. They certainly hoped I would, but they never expressed that.

This freedom from being shamed into thinking failing is a big drame, allowed me to be successful in difficult situations. I was unburdened by my educator's expectations and could find out what I liked and what I did not like without any interference.

The constant moral finger pointing and, when failure occurs, the constant selling of "hope" and "uplifting messages" is somewhat annoying and phony to my ears. It's what I most dislike about the "American way" of "winning, succeeding and learning from failure".

[ Parent ]

Learning to fail, but not in sports (3.50 / 2) (#16)
by PLSANDER on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 05:11:20 PM EST

Sports is not the only school-aged activity where children are in an environment where failure is an expected method of instruction.

Scouts ( and probably 4-H, FFA, etc but I am more familiar with scouts, both the BSA and the GSUSA versions) provide a place where a kid can fail in various ways and learn lessons from that failure without great peril.

4H indeed (none / 0) (#27)
by triticale on Thu Sep 06, 2001 at 10:27:06 PM EST

The motto of 4H competition is "to make the best better" and the competitions are organised to do that starting wherever one's personal best is. Altho better known for rural activities, 4H is also active in some cities, and even the farm kids can compete on group or solo performance, skill demonstration and hobby crafts as well as the better known livestock raising.

We were involved with 4H for many years in Chicago. My wife specifically told the kids it was a chance to screw up where it didn't matter. One young man we worked with was so shy (the government school had battered his self esteem rather than detect and work with his dyslexia) that his first year he was barely visible in the background of the stage presentation. A few years later he had worked his way forward to a starring role, and the last we heard he was working as a retail salesman.

[ Parent ]
This is what sports teaches you (4.33 / 3) (#18)
by reeses on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 05:37:30 PM EST

I know the readership tends away from the active participant in sports, but this is one of the very valuable lessons that children learn playing hockey, soccer, and those other things that people call sports, but really aren't.

I was fortunate (?) enough to be diagnosed with activity-induced asthma when I was four years old, for which my parents enrolled me in a local mite hockey team. We were a team with four-year-olds; needless to say, we sucked. Over the next 20 years, through all the age groups, college, and junior-league play, I lost a hell of a lot of games. I lost in track, and I lost in cross-country, too.

Sports provide an arbitrary framework for competition. Amateur sports are not as wide-ranging, and the stakes are nothing, compared to the real world. As such, it provides an excellent set of opportunities to understand that sometimes failure is directly your fault, and sometimes not. Sometimes an opponent is so much better than everyone else you've met, your only fault is in being surprised by something you hadn't anticipated.

Most of the better players feel bad when they lose, but use it as a learning experience, although they may not know it. They know they got out of position, they didn't pour enough energy in, or whatever, and the losses were inevitably turned into later victories.

The sports field (3.00 / 2) (#20)
by a life in hell on Wed Aug 29, 2001 at 09:35:10 PM EST

Actully, I found the sports field to be the perfect place to learn how to fail for me - I'm not good at sports, and hence I never win at them, and I had to learn to deal with that. Conversely, athletic people generally learn to fail in the classroom, and learn to succeed on the sports field.

Which is why we need *both* sports and academia in high school, so *everyone* can learn to fail, not just the people who are bad at academia

Sport (none / 0) (#25)
by greenrd on Sun Sep 02, 2001 at 09:16:22 AM EST

I'd rather not "learn how to fail" hundreds of times over the course of ten years or so, thanks. I was never any good at physical education. Why is that computing is optional but sport is not, in many schools? I'm only half-joking. Computing is far more important in the modern world.

"Capitalism is the absurd belief that the worst of men, for the worst of reasons, will somehow work for the benefit of us all." -- John Maynard Keynes
[ Parent ]

Failure and Self-Image (4.80 / 5) (#23)
by maveness on Sat Sep 01, 2001 at 04:37:27 PM EST

Lately, I've considered adopting the motto: "Anything worth doing is worth failing at."

Of course the idea is not to go into something with the idea of failing, but to accept that a potential risk of attempting something innovative, different, risky, or just plain difficult is failure. There _is_ such a thing as a "noble effort."

Part of the reason that it's so hard for me to adopt this new motto is that I was trained early on to identify completely with my successes (mostly academic/professional), and to believe that my likeability depended primarily on an unbroken string of accomplishments, continued demonstrations of intelligence, and an established record for putting other people's concerns ahead of my own. As a result, it has become difficult for me to know what I want or to embark on any project which I'm unsure that I will be able to master.

By the way, this is a recipe for depression, which is nature's way of making sure that you know that failure is not optional, but in fact inevitable. I do believe that everyone fails at something eventually, simply because the world is not ultimately controllable.

This is not an argument for mediocrity or settling. It is an argument for knowing yourself, your limitations and your strengths, and working with the one and building on the other. It's also a plea that we not strive to locate our identities solely in our areas of achievement.

Latest fortune cookie: "The current year will bring you much happiness." As if.

zero-sum? (5.00 / 1) (#28)
by janra on Sat Sep 08, 2001 at 09:54:46 PM EST

By definition for there to be winners, there need to be losers.

Only if you assume a zero-sum game.

Or is it your attitude that you're a loser if you don't get the biggest piece of the pie, but a slightly smaller one?

Discuss the art and craft of writing
That's the problem with world domination... Nobody is willing to wait for it anymore, work slowly towards it, drink more and enjoy the ride more.
Learning to fail | 28 comments (23 topical, 5 editorial, 0 hidden)
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