Demonstrating To Our Students that Failing Does Not Necessarily Mean Failure

Why is it that when we make a mistake or see a setback, many individuals feel as though the original goal we set out to accomplish is now a lost cause or possibly even a complete failure? Is it that what we wanted to achieve is now hopeless and no longer worth our time? Perhaps, in some circumstances this may be the case, as we have all had goals that we have had to decide to be no longer attainable. However, for the vast majority, I would argue they are within our reach, yet our determination weakens as we encounter setbacks. Therefore, the question in this work is why does our initial passion subside and finally become so easily depleted, seemingly due to setbacks which are in reality, minimal? The answer, I suggest, is due to what our leaders, teachers, and parents have not taught us, rather than what they have taught.

So what do I mean by concluding that our mentors have failed to teach, rather than focusing on what has been taught. I’d like to start out by an example.  One morning I took five minutes in the beginning of class, starting out showing my students one of my articles that was recently published. Of course they were all very kind as well as complimentary of the piece, which I truly appreciated. However, after many praises, I proceeded to show them all of the rejections which I have received from a vast number of editors and publishers. Now, when I refer to all the “no thank you” replies, I do not mean a small figure of four or five. The numbers range up into the 40 to 50’s. Yes, although it is difficult for me to put that in print, that which never goes away, those numbers are correct, if not low. Much like any other aspect in life, it typically takes a large amount of work to succeed in even small increments. However, the message I wanted to send to my students is that despite “failing” in terms of accomplishing having my articles published in the majority of the many publications I submitted them to, I also succeeded. On average seven to twelve publications will love my work, allowing me to lose, while I simultaneously win. More importantly, the bigger issue is that failing…… OK.

Why is this message so important to send? The short answer is because the topic is so fundamentally simplistic, we have greatly overlooked it. However, going into more detail, I would argue because as complex creatures in a 21st century society, we have evolved to simply put our best features at the forefront. In a constant struggle to succeed we promote our accomplishments, while discreetly, but quickly shoving the failures under someplace where no one looks. The problem being that this is not only a trend among adults, but it is a taught and learned lesson by those who exert influence. Consequently, our children as well as our students grow into this custom of feeling like a failure, in terms of their innate characteristics, for failing within only one context of their lives.  However, the differences between these two “failings” could not be both more defined as well as far enough apart.

Despite these realities, this vital lesson of “successful failure” if you will, is not taught. This lesson is not focused on by educators, at least not in a direct manner with the intention to combat this feeling of failure in young adults. As this lesson, in its core is common knowledge, I am certain that there are teachers that pursue this message.  Adding to that, my personal belief is that most credible mentors, teachers, and parents tell students to keep trying, pick yourself up, dust off, and get out there again, which of course is excellent advice. However, where do you see the adult that actually lives as well as exhibits the example? For some reason, adult failures seem to be off limits, hidden, and without a doubt unfit to share with those who we influence, such as our children and students. Of course there are adult problems that need to be kept within the privacy of those individuals, and we should all have that right. Without a doubt we are not trying to reward or promote failure as a goal. Yet, I would argue that for every reasonable opportunity revealed to us, as educators we should point out our own flaws as much as our successes, ultimately demonstrating that failing, does not ultimately make you a failure.

Dale Schlundt holds a Master’s Degree in Adult Education with a concentration in American History from the University of Texas at San Antonio and is currently an Adjunct Professor for Palo Alto College. His book is available here.