As educators in the modern age, we recognize the importance of failure. We know it feels bad, but we also know that it is an important step towards growth.
Winston Churchil was on to this idea when he stated "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm." Sometimes, that is a really hard thing to do.
At times, I am really good at failure and even embrace it. When I play tennis (or basketball, pickle, street hockey, dodge ball, wiffle ball, video games, ghost in the graveyard - you get the idea?) with my kids, I typically fail. This never, ever bothers me and I consistently have a great time. The stakes are low and I can occasionally learn a new thing that makes my failure less extreme the next time around. I know that I will never be able to compete with either of them in any sport I try, and yet, I keep going back for more and find myself laughing in spite of my failure.
When I fail with them, I am part of an accepting team. They encourage me to keep trying, to try a new approach and to get back up when I fall. They may laugh at my efforts, but they never judge my ineptitude. The conditions we have set as a family that plays sports allow each player to push him/herself to have fun and develop skill.
In other situations, failure feels a lot less positive. When I fail at a lesson, I feel like we have wasted 45 minutes of the students' time. When I have a bad interaction with a parent, student or colleague, I feel mean, incompetent or rude.
Failure is, among other things, a signal is something is wrong in either our approach or implementation. If you get out of the shower and there is still shampoo in your hair, you haven't properly rinsed. If your meatloaf tastes gross, you added the wrong ingredients.
When we fail at high stakes events, it feels different from burning the dinner or losing your keys at the grocery store. It feels more permanent, more damaging and just plain icky. But the truth is, failing when we really hoped to succeed is valuable and sometimes good.
Think of it this way: if I made asparagus that no one would eat, I learned some valuable things to help with future meals and have only wasted $2.99. I got some insight for not a huge cost. But what if the asparagus was not on sale? What if I have invested more time, money and effort? What if I had made the world's best asparagus and no one was home to enjoy it?
It is in these "what ifs" that failure in a high stakes event can be transformed into fun. Recently, I was turned down for a job I thought I really wanted. What if I had gotten that job? Would I have been effective and happy? What if there is a better opportunity on its way? Would I have missed out on that? What if I had never tried? Would I be the person I am today? Would I have been open to whatever opportunity might present itself next?
The answer is no. I failed and it felt really icky. But I also learned some really important things and for me, learning is the funnest thing there is. In a way, I turned that failure into fun - not the kind of fun I have when I lose in tennis or street hockey - but the fun in knowing that I am walking away with knowledge and determination to keep my enthusiasm in tact and robust. I rather think Churchill would approve.