There’s a good deal of talk these days about it being ‘good to fail’ and that ‘failure is the key to success’. Anyone who has failed at something (and let’s face it, that is all of us regularly on some level) will know that there is absolutely nothing good about failure. It is miserable not to succeed and causes feelings of anger and frustration, and the replaying of self-punishing ‘what ifs?’.
But – and here’s the really terrible thing about failure – it is something we all do, to one degree or another, on a daily basis. It must follow, surely, that while failure is not ‘good’, it certainly has a crucial role to play in shaping the human condition and that it is vital to acquire the resilience and all-important grit (the holy grail of a 21st century education) with which to tackle life’s disappointments.
It is all very well making everyone a winner, but herein lies the dichotomy: in order to understand what success is, we must also understand its flipside, failure. The conundrum lies in the fact that cushioning children from failure reduces their appreciation of success and, significantly, the efforts required to attain it.
While it is a natural instinct to protect the young from the harsh realities of the world, it really doesn’t seem to do them any favours. And, judging by young role models across the world engaging with global issues, there is far more resilience than perhaps we credit when it comes to tackling what’s tough.
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Most successful individuals are fine examples of the contradiction that lies at the heart of failure. The Nobel-winning scientist who notched up hours of experimentation before it finally came good; the first-time Olympic gold medal winning athlete whose lifetime of races previously saw them pipped at the line; and the multi-million pound entrepreneur who had a string of lousy ideas before alighting on the one that made their fortune. Behind every person steaming to success, there seems to lie a wake of failure.
So, it appears evident that, while it is not ‘good to fail’, it is extremely important for individuals to experience failure in order to succeed. Parents and educators need to give students this opportunity. But, more importantly, we need to allow young people the time to determine what they learnt from the failure, how they can adapt behaviours in response, and what they need to do in order to move towards achieving their goal, placing emphasis on reflective practice.
This was neatly encapsulated some years ago by a student narrowly failing to gain her first-choice university place. “Never again,” she reflected, “will I say ‘I think I have done enough’. Next time I will know that I have done more than enough.” Needless to say, a valuable-though-painful lesson learned, she nailed a first-class honours degree.
Exposing students to risk and challenge in school enables them to push boundaries and to fail in a supportive environment. The educational experience needs opportunities to form a ‘risk portfolio’, something advocated by a young entrepreneur at a recent conference. He argued that taking calculated risks every day helped to develop a greater understanding and acceptance of failure, which in turn contributed learning for ultimate success.
Cushioning children from failure reduces their appreciation of success and, significantly, the efforts required to attain it
Far from trying to evade failure, therefore, we should deliver a range of challenges within and – equally important – beyond the classroom, that builds a student’s experience of failure, shapes their ability to respond to it and strengthens their determination to overcome it.
Indeed, ‘personal mastery’ – constantly setting challenging new goals which will naturally include a degree of failure and then learning how to achieve them – is something psychologists believe improves physical and mental wellbeing.
This is something that independent schools, through their cocurricular provision, deliver for students on an exemplary level: extensive competitive sporting opportunities, challenging musical, artistic and dramatic endeavour, and a range of societies, clubs and activities through which students encounter varying degrees of failure in order to gain success. It’s no wonder that they develop confidence, resilience and aptitude along the way; what we now call grit.
I still hold that it is not ‘good to fail’, but recognise it is a critical brick in building for success. And, if we want to lay foundations that will enable our young people to confront and overcome the world’s complex needs and experience personal fulfilment, schools that continue to develop a culture of challenge and reflective practice are a great place to lay the first stone.