In Response to Failure.

How many times have I been told, “Don’t be afraid to fail!” or “Don’t worry about messing up!”? Many, many more than I can count. Perhaps that comes from my obsessive, bordering on compulsive perfectionist nature, or the fact that people, particularly my teachers, want an antidote to that nature. Yet “don’t be afraid to fail” doesn’t seem to help me, and seems like it never will.

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I’ve been thinking about this lately, mostly because I’ve been reading about it. I’ve been scrolling through posts from blogs I follow when I came upon this from the mystical “Luigus” of Super Philosophy Bros. Now, he is someone who has given me advice before – real advice, personal advice, advice I consider and re-approach at this very moment when I think about improving. As a diligent apprentice, I felt the need to respond.

Failing is good. Don’t get me wrong. Making mistakes is good. That’s all well and clear and fine with me. I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with the action of failing in itself. I’m saying the attitude – both our personal ones towards ourselves, and the ones we put outwards to other people – are giving it the connotation that there’s something really wrong with making mistakes.


My problem is this: we learn from the people around us. You may be perfectly fine with a mistake you just made, but the facial expressions or reactions of the people around you can change everything. Let’s give an example here: my Spanish class last year. It was just about a year ago, last March. I wrote a journal entry on this, so it’s all down in TextEdit, if that makes anything official.


It was a relatively relaxed day in Spanish class, and we were answering a couple questions for the teacher before playing a game. I answered a question incorrectly. I had acknowledged the mistake to myself, and probably could have let it go. Did I? No. Why? Because a couple of the people in that class, boys especially, were staring at me like (and one said something along the lines of), “Whoa, she made a mistake!” That could be because I am an academic perfectionist and known to be a total geek and “good at school” (whatever you want that to mean). But it was that reaction that brings me back to that moment as I sit here writing this.


Granted, I wrote a whole journal entry on this because of something that happened later in class that I won’t get into. The reaction I had wanted in that situation was the one I got from my Spanish teacher who knew me well. Her look said everything: you made a mistake. You’re a little off your game today, but that’s okay. So is the mistake. I care about you, and I want you to be okay with this. Then she looked back to the board, and class moved on.


That is the kind of reaction I want to get. That is the kind of reaction, the kind of look, that makes me feel okay and makes me want to move on. I am someone who is a notorious dweller – I rewrite my essays after I hand them in. It’s true. Sometimes twice or three times. Teachers have to tell me directly to stop or I could go on for ages. Mostly, I dwell on my mistakes. I view them negatively, as places I could improve. The latter part of that sentence seems as though it would be positive, but there’s another factor in play: what Luigus calls the “I’m Such an Idiot” Fallacy.


Pretty accurate name, right? And the process to get there seems somewhat logical too: you mess up, you take in the reactions of others, then the “realization” that this must come from your character! It must be some flaw in you personally that made you mess up like that! And it’s a cycle: you must be causing the mistakes, but people keep telling you to stop self-flagellating, so you self-flagellate more for self-flagellating and so on.


Take a step back for a minute. WHAT?! Where did that just come from? I am probably the worst person to write this (that in itself being a criticism) because I do this all the time. And more than just doing it all the time, I’ve become so accustomed to it that I skip steps. I make any mistake: I’m so stupid. I forget a comma on my paper: I’m so stupid. I blank out on a word I want to use in Spanish class (a different one this year): that was so dumb; it was so obvious! More than that, it’s a habit that can inhibit decision-making because it happens with potential mistakes too.


Now, this is coming from someone who rewrites their papers a dozen times before they’re due and twice afterwards. This is coming from the same obsessive person who sorts rainbow sprinkles with tweezers when she gets especially stressed. Given that, I am someone who knows this habit. Well.


How can we change this whole failure dynamic? Well, let’s look at it like this: we value the opinions of others, especially in situations where we messed up. I, for one, am concerned with making the people around me uncomfortable or sad or scared or upset with me when I do something wrong. If the boys in my Spanish class that day hadn’t said anything to me, maybe I wouldn’t have remembered that day. Maybe I would have let it go. But I didn’t.


I value my teachers’ opinions a lot – more than I can express here, and more than I probably tell them. I think quite a lot (or what seems like a lot) based on feedback they give me. Teachers and parents need to give students the idea that other people’s mistakes are okay. And, with that, each student’s mistakes are okay. (Pardon the overuse of “okay” here; put acceptable in instead if you get tired.)


We seek self-acceptance as much as the acceptance of others (let’s pass the fact that this is debatable), so the best way to do this is to lead by example. Grown-ups are as afraid to mess up as kids or teenagers, and maybe more. That example is leading us to internalize the same attitude, which is wrong and unfair to ourselves and others. “So much more is at stake” yada yada yada. You need to lead. Not doing so will leave the next generation with the “I’m Such an Idiot” Fallacy too, compounded by the changing world and increasing population.


Yes, this requires being weirdly personal at times and leaving your life out on the table. Some things are hard to come to terms with personally, none the less in front of other people. We can learn from you anyways. Your hard lessons will become our hard lessons. Just help us learn to accept them.


Reflection is good. Self-paralysis is not. Adults, lead by example. Teenagers, have awareness and listen. If you think you’re listening enough, you’re still not. (And self, stop telling yourself that you’re unfit to write this.)




One thought on “In Response to Failure.

  1. Failing and flailing every step of the way, always willing to be weirdly personal, and leave my life out on the table, I make mistake upon mistake, then beat myself up for the self-flagellation. I don’t claim to be anyone’s role model, but I willingly bare my soul as a flawed human being, then lead (and follow) the best I can. Anyone who is self-aware and reflects will acknowledge mistakes, and try to avoid repeating them. It’s the dwelling that we want to minimize. It’s the paralysis that we want to eliminate. (Oh reader, Samuel Beckett is on your horizon.)

    Perspective. I have to remind myself of perspective. In reality, is this something of great importance, on the life or death scale, or in dollars and cents, or the scheme of this day, or my life? Perspective.

    The same holds true with teaching and parenting. Is this lesson of great importance? Of significant value in this young person’s life?

    I will always try to listen better. I fail. I will fail again. I will try again. I will fail better next time.

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