Saturday, 9 March 2013

Learning to fail

I know, it sounds contrary. However, a few things have converged recently and the ability to manage failure gracefully and see it as something potentially useful is a dying ability, or so it seems to me based on a number of recent experiences. And, as it appears to happen - it's a bit spooky really - as I'm mulling over my thoughts on this topic, up pops an article by a public figure for whom I have a great deal of respect. 

Lisa Forrest will be remembered by many as one of our teenage swimming stars, and one of those who defied Malcolm Fraser's government to be part of our contingent at the 1980 Olympic Games. She has since campaigned for women in sports journalism, acted, presented radio programs and is a writer of four novels, with a fifth due out soon. In her article for The Hoopla, Losing can be beautiful too, she tells of her own experience coming second in a race - mostly due to ignoring her coach's swim plan through youth and inexperience - and her parents' handling of her feelings post-race. She also looks at the debacle of the Australian swim team at the London Olympics last year. A debacle not due to the medal count - our swimmers were there, many won medals, ergo they are right up there amongst the best in the world - but due to their behaviour post-race. Who will ever forget James Magnussen's attitude? Cocky and top of the world pre-race, then incoherent, shoving past reporters refusing to speak when he didn't win.

Aeons ago, when I was still married to No.1's father, I had an experience, up close and personal, of behaviour like this. He was doing an honours degree, and after much slogging away at his thesis, he submitted it for its first review. It was handed back with notes and recommendations for improvements before he handed it up to be examined. It was some time before I got the details of the situation because he was outraged, almost incoherent with emotion that he clearly couldn't articulate. Silly me, I kept asking him what the matter was...concerned young wife... What I got was a tirade about how he'd failed, and how I just didn't understand. I didn't see it myself. What I saw was a review process. What he saw was that his effort wasn't good enough.
This drama played out again with him as one of the players many years later. The other player was No.1. It was school sports day and No.1 had been picked for his house's relay team - the relay races were always the last event on the schedule for the day, so everyone was lined up along the track to cheer them on. No.1's team started badly. The first runner wasn't fast enough, and then there was a fumbled baton change between the first and second runners. Then came the change between the second runner and No.1. At that point in the race, they were coming last. I had never seen No.1 run as fast as he did that afternoon. He powered through, passed one runner, then another runner, then thrust the baton at their last team member with the team now in second place. Their last runner ran a mighty length, but couldn't quite catch up and they came in second - just! Those kids were beside themselves, and No.1 was thumped from all sides with congratulations for pulling them so far back up through the race. He was walking about ten feet tall. His stepfather and I set off across the tracks to congratulate him, but his father got there first... We got there just in time to hear him say to No.1, "What a pity you couldn't have run just a little bit faster, Son. Then your team could have won." No.1 shrank back to less than his usual height. Nothing we said to him could erase what his father had said. He'd done his best, his very, very best, and pulled his team through to a fabulous second, but in his father's eyes he'd failed.

These days, there appears to be a concentrated focus on building our children up to believe they can do anything, they're wonderful, they're brilliant, they're super-talented - ALL THE TIME. Consequently, we are now creating a generation that have no idea how to meet challenges that are a natural part of life. A parent once said to me of a teen I was to work with, "Tell him he's great, he needs to hear he's doing well." My reply was, "Let him show me he's doing well, and I'll reinforce that, but if he's messing up, he needs to hear that so he can lift his game and work out what he needs to do to improve." That same child has recently had a setback at school, and is in meltdown because it's his first real failure and he hasn't the faintest idea of how to deal with it. Admittedly it's big. The potential consequences could be harsh. However, it's not irredeemable, and although it will ultimately mean that he may not come through shining quite as brightly as anticipated, he can still achieve a grade that will get him where he wants to go.

Learning to fail, to lose, teaches us skills to meet challenges. We're not always going to be first in a race. We're not always going to get the top mark. All too often, we'll be second choice for that job we went for. These things will sting, yes. Some of them will feel initially devastating. I know this, I've been there. I've also watched my children struggle through the disappointment of not winning, of not coming first in competitions or school exams. I watched both of them have to work through the emotional implications of spending not one, but two years completing their final year of school, both for a different set of reasons, and both by transferring to a different school for that second year. They are now both in good jobs, independent and enjoying what they're doing. Was it easy for them? No. Do they have a sense of appreciation for what they've achieved? I certainly hope so, because it's impressive. I am extremely proud of both of them.

When we start by giving out a prize to every child who plays 'pin the tail on the donkey' at a birthday party instead of just the child who actually achieves it; when we buy into rants from children who bring home substandard work from school blaming their teachers for not 'getting' them; when we tell them that they're the best at something, even if they're not - we start to teach them that everyone is a winner, everyone is great, and they can always have what they want just because they want it. That's not reality. Sometimes, if they experience something bad, it may be a genuinely unfair situation that creates the loss. That happens, and in that case, they're fully entitled to sympathy and cossetting. Losing a game - well, in games someone wins and someone loses and that's how games work, so that should be dealt with in a matter of fact manner. Basically, if you don't like to lose, don't play, and if you want to play, learn to lose gracefully when it's not your time to win. When they fail because they didn't come up to scratch, if they ignored an instruction, if they broke the rules...they need to learn that they created that for themselves. They made a choice that resulted in them not achieving their desired aim, that they played a part in the end result and they need to take responsibility for that. If we don't teach them this, we deprive them of the opportunity to take responsibility for their own destiny. We take away from them the possibility to learn to strive for something they haven't yet attained. We don't give them a chance to learn what it is to burn for something and then pursue it... 


  1. Agree wholeheartedly. I just wanted to add that there can be an innate joy that comes from trying, either individually or as a team. Knowing that you swallowed your fears, faced them and gave yourself to the process. The outcome can become less relevant than knowing that we have "given it a try". The process, more than the results, are what I remember most about my life experiences. Some of my 'failures' have been the most wonderful experiences of my life. True.

  2. Absolutely - learning to love the process, not just the end gain!