The Importance of Failure

fictionThere is a quote from Stephen McCranie that I am particularly fond of:

“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.”

Last night, I feared that I would have to have just that talk with my daughter about failure. That everyone fails, and the only thing that matters is whether you let that stop you from trying again or build from your mistakes and do better the next time. It is testing week at her Taekwondo school, and at her rank she must break a board within three attempts before she is allowed to test for her next belt.

She has broken the board many times before. She has broken harder boards than the one that is required for testing. We all know that she is fully capable of breaking it without any issue.

And yet, for the past four testing cycles, this has been a huge ordeal. For whatever reason, she simply doesn’t break the boards until the very last possible attempt. I don’t know if she simply feeds on the stress for weeks leading up to the test and then revels in the thunderous applause from every parent in the room when she finally manages to do it, or if there is some mental block that really takes that much pressure to get over. Regardless of the reason, it is the same routine time and time again and I don’t know how to break it.

It bears noting that I am not silently wishing she would screw up. She is good at the form aspects of the sport, and loves doing it. We have worked with her for hours upon hours outside of class to try and get her breaking boards with ease. We have borrowed equipment from the school to work with her. She has stayed after class for extra coaching. We have driven her to adult classes so that she could have another chance to break the boards before testing, and the instructors have bent over backwards trying to encourage her and build up her confidence.

The lessons, equipment, and testing fees for her chosen pursuit are not inexpensive. I almost feel at times that the instructors want to go easy on her to avoid upsetting us, the ones paying for her to be there, as I know they need the patronage of all the students to stay in business. But I certainly hope they never do go easy on her. I don’t want her to fail… but I know that at some point it needs to happen.

Nobody coasts through from beginner to master, without frustrations and setbacks along the way. Nobody plays the violin perfectly the first time they pick it up, nobody paints an amazing picture the first time they place a brush on the paper. You learn and grow by making mistakes. By screwing up. By not being good enough.

And then you choose to either give up and walk away or to keep trying until you get better.

When I look back at the first masks I made, I cringe. But I kept at it, I tried different things, I learned better techniques and how to better use my materials and tools, and eventually I got pretty good at it. I don’t make many masks anymore, because I have moved on to other challenges, but I could still pick up a piece of leather and jump right back in.

On the flip side, I also have instruments scattered all over the house that I pretty much gave up on. I could not master the violin. I could not even get the simplest of music out of it. I chose not to stick with it and thus, nine years later, I cannot play.

I don’t want her to get discouraged and walk away from something that she has loved so far. I don’t want her to feel like she is not good enough, or that she cannot do anything simply because she is a girl, or is smaller than her peers, or whatever. But I also don’t want her to coast through from belt to belt without any challenge.

I want her to learn the power that comes from making the decision to move past defeat. To get back up and try again. I want her to succeed because she worked her butt off to do so, learned from her mistakes, and got better with each attempt.

I want her to be able to look back when she has reached her goal and know that she mastered whatever it was that she set out to do, not because she avoided failure, but because she used it to propel her ever closer to the finish line. I don’t want her to get a trophy for participating, for paying the fee and taking the class. I want the trophy to be her own sense of self worth for overcoming something that she could not the day before. But that is not an easy thing to explain to a 3rd grader.

She needs to fail at some point, when it matters, so she can learn how to pick herself up and keep going.

Last night however, was not that point. She broke her board, on the third and final attempt. The instructors made her apologize to my wife for stressing her out and pushing it to the wire again. She will test for her next belt this weekend and she will most likely get it, her form is spot on.

In other news, I picked up another instrument to learn today. This one is a bit easier than the violin, and I think I have finally found something I can play as Gandersnitch.

Yes, it is true. I am learning how to play the spoons…

If I can keep my dog from trying to eat them.

1 comment for “The Importance of Failure

  1. January 28, 2016 at 1:29 pm

    Spoons!?! Sounds like a good percussion instrument to go with my Ocarina! We should jam together sometime 🙂 I have failed at many things in life, but I have found time and time again that if I put the work in, good things happen, even if they aren’t what I expect. Good for you for wanting the same thing for your daughter! Failure makes us stronger, if we are brave enough to use it.

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