Fresh Ideas: Seeing failure as our teacher

“It’s not that I’m so smart; it’s that I stay with problems longer.” — Albert Einstein.

Last week, while reading “The Martian” by Andy Weir (just out as a motion picture), I was struck again and again not only by the protagonist’s resourcefulness, but also by his resilience. Mark Watney, an astronaut in the near future, is presumed dead and marooned on Mars. That’s right. Mars. No one knows he’s alive. He has no way to communicate and very limited resources. He faces certain starvation, oxygen deprivation, freezing, or any number of calamities. Nonetheless, he doesn’t give up. He thinks through the problems one at a time. He makes mistakes. He gets frustrated, throws a few tantrums and f-words, but always — always — calms down and figures out what went wrong and tries again. Failure becomes his teacher.

Those of us who aren’t astronauts find ourselves having to learn new things as well. Every new cell phone, television remote, or Zumba routine offers a multitude of ways to fail, sometimes embarrassingly. Our efforts to lose weight or overcome addiction are fraught with risk of failure. But hear this: it’s not the missteps that determine our success; it’s our response to them. Did we learn something useful with this attempt? I submit that we can’t make progress without failing. And probably more than once.

Our brains are designed for learning. From the moment we are born, we are learning. We learn to walk by falling. Repeatedly. How many skinned knees did we get while learning to ride a bike or roller skate? How many gears did we grind learning to drive a stick? Little by little, mistake by mistake, we learned. Or most of us did anyway. Still many of us beat ourselves up over every mistake. We think we’re stupid. Our kids can get into this habit, too.

Childhood is anything but an untroubled time. Even kids from happy homes have to deal with uncertainties and traumas. A new school or teacher. The loss of a loved one or pet. A bad grade or not making the team. The good news is kids can learn to be more resilient if we grown-ups model and practice the right words and actions.

First, be sure their goals are realistic. Help them break down larger goals into smaller bites. Acknowledge every step toward that goal — even if it’s tiny — rather than focusing on what’s left to be done. Praise their efforts. That will help keep motivation high and nurture a positive self-view.

Remind them of past challenges that they successfully handled and what they learned. Those efforts gave them strength for future ones. Tough times are when they learn the most.

Set a good example so your child learns the importance of making time to eat properly, exercise, play, laugh, rest, and be creative. Everyone needs “down time.” Help them see the humor in life and to laugh at themselves now and then.

Finally, remind them that life goes on. Biographies and documentaries about famous people who failed before they succeeded can provide perspective and inspiration. Walt Disney, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Dr. Seuss, and even Albert Einstein all bounced back from failures. Their paths to success were not straight lines. They suffered plenty of ups and downs along the way. They learned from each mistake and kept trying until they got it right.

We can’t protect our children from all of life’s losses and disappointments nor should we. However, we can strengthen their resilience by reminding them that mistakes are times of learning. The trick is not to give up. As poet, John Sinclair writes, “Failure is a bruise. Not a tattoo.”

Lorie Schaefer is retired.


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