Capacity for Failure

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Failure is not something we really like to think about – or embrace for that matter.  Failure sounds like a dirty word.  Something embarrassing.  We don’t want others to know about our failures.  We usually want to hide them.  How many people do you know who openly talk about their failures?  Not many that I know.

However, I think we are doing each other and our children a disservice by NOT talking about our failures.  If you have not failed, you have not succeeded.  If you take a chance, you usually don’t reach your goal the first time you try.  How many of us just got on a bike and could ride perfectly that first time?  No one I know.
By creating a veil of secrecy around our failures, we are creating an illusion for our children and setting them up for unreal expectations.  If children grow up not seeing or knowing about failure, they will expect themselves to be perfect.  Impossible.  When they don’t achieve that perfection, they feel miserable.  Worthless.
As adults, we have all failed at something – a job we didn’t get, a school we weren’t accepted to, a failed marriage, we fluked a course, we were arrested…..  The list could go on.  Of course we are not proud of failures, but they teach us something – if we choose to reflect and learn.  The majority of successful people have failed.  Not failed once, but MULTIPLE times.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” – Robert F. Kennedy
I love the Michael Jordan story (who can resist, especially if you’re a Tarheel).  He is arguably the most successful basketball player of all time.  However, he didn’t make the basketball team the first time he tried out in high school.  That’s like cutting Tiger Woods from the golf team, or Alex Rodriguez from the high school baseball team.  What?!  Jordan had the choice to allow himself to be crushed by the failure, or use it as a learning and growing opportunity.  He chose to use this experience to motivate him.  And… know the rest of the story.
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I love that Jordan has been open about his failures.  It motivates me.  There are many examples of people we consider to be experts in their field that have faced tremendous failures along the way.  Just a few examples of famous failures can be found in this article.
In my experience in education, many students are completely knocked over by failure.  I don’t mean actually failing a class – but not coming up with the “right” answer.  In traditional school, students learn to “play school.” – they know the expectations of the teacher and work to give the right answer and get the approval of the teacher.  However, when we challenge students to step outside that box to create and invent as a part of their learning, they will inevitably face failures along the way.  The high-achievers are the ones who usually get the most freaked out by this because they have ALWAYS known the right answers.
However, as students experiment and try new things they will fail.  But we need to be deliberate about talking with students about the power of failure.  The opportunities that it brings.  Failure happens for a reason – we didn’t try something in the right order, we left out a key element, etc…  The key to failure is to LEARN from failure.
“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: the fear of failure.” – Paulo Coelho
As educators and parents, we need to be open about failures in our life and how we have learned from them.  We need to model failure.  This will give our children permission to fail.  It will show them that failure is not the end – it’s an opportunity to learn and change.  It’s a new beginning.
If we want to create students who can be truly successful in life, we need to create in them the capacity for failure – the ability to work through failures, learn from them and try again.  We need to teach them to be tough enough to weather failures.  We need them to expect some failures along the way and help them understand these and work through them.  Their egos cannot be so fragile that they can’t withstand failures.  We, as adults, must model failures as growth opportunities for our children.
“The phoenix must burn to emerge.” – Janet Fitch
There are so many inspiring stories about how people have face failures, weathered the storm and come out better for it.  I often look back on some of these when I am facing difficult times and am reminded that I can push through a situation and learn from it.  Failure is never truly failing unless you give up.  I want more of our students to understand this.  In order to achieve a dream, you may fail at the first, second, third……. attempt.  But eventually, if you persevere, the dream is achievable.
“Failure is so important. We speak about success all the time. It is the ability to resist failure or use failure that often leads to greater success. I’ve met people who don’t want to try for fear of failing.” – J.K. Rowling

Note: The copyrights on the article belong to the author. The responsibility for the opinions expressed in the article belongs exclusively to the author. Previously published on ” The Educational Rambler.”



  1. Excellent commentary. I recall years ago being in a meeting led by the creative director of a global advertising agency here in Chicago. He said he give staff “the freedom to fail,” that being the freedom to develop campaigns based on where their creativity (and research, of course) took them. This comment has stayed with me a long time.

    Liked by 2 people

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