Learning to Be a Successful Failure

Learning is risky business.  Think about it.  Anytime we try something new, we are destined to fail before we can succeed.  A child’s first steps often end with a fall.  Scraped knees and colorful bruises are the tuition many children pay as they learn to ride a bike.   And no child ever picked up her first book and read it cover to cover.  When we invite children to learn something new, we are indeed inviting them to be brave enough to fail, so that they can learn to succeed. 

If we expect children to learn, grow, and progress, we have to create an environment and an atmosphere that lets them know that it’s OK to risk, and OK to fail.  We do much of this with our reactions to their failures.  When they spill a glass of water, we don’t get angry and shove them out of the way, grumbling about what a mess they’ve made.  Rather, we mention that we have done the same thing before (you know you have) then we hand them a towel and help them clean it up.  When they make mistakes in their behavior, we empathize with them (“I can see that you’re angry.  I get angry too sometimes.”) and then we help them correct the behavior (“I can’t let you hurt people.  I won’t let anyone hurt you, and I can’t let you hurt other people.  What could you do instead?”).  Our response is calm, and encourages them to learn from their mistakes and failures, in order to become more proficient in the future.

If a child does not feel safe enough to risk and to fail, she will resist trying to read that word she’s not quite sure of, or making friends with another child she just met.  Children who are afraid of failure will be at a disadvantage in almost every aspect of development.

Communicating that failure is OK is not the same as taking away its consequences.  In fact, when we protect children from consequences too much, we are actually communicating to them that failure is not acceptable.  We rob them of the meaningful learning that takes place in the discomfort of undesirable, natural consequences

Failure can be a catalyst for growth.  Sometimes it is only through failure that children learn how to succeed.  Take potty training for instance.  Some children simply need to have an accident a few times before they are able to connect the physical urges to the resulting experience.  Relying too heavily on “training diapers” prevents children from experiencing those natural, uncomfortable consequences that come with those accidents.  When they don’t get the biofeedback related to the experience, they can’t learn to make the needed changes. 

When children risk, and fail, we need to show them that failure is not an endpoint, but an opportunity to regroup.  In our reactions, we are calm, empathetic, and supportive.  Then we ask, “What do you do now?”  It is the ability to answer that question well that really defines those who are ultimately successful.

We can be successful failures as teachers and parents as well.  It is inevitable that we will have some activities that don’t go as planned, presentations that get botched, and entire days that are completely off-kilter.  When we evaluate those days, rather than condemn them, we can truly grow as professionals and as parents and become more successful.

Failure is inherent in the scientific method, or the method of inquiry.  We try, we fail, we evaluate, and we try again.  In this framework we welcome error, and interpret it as valuable information.  This is very different from our right/wrong age of standardized tests and flash card frenzies.

Thomas Edison is one of my favorite examples of taking risks and valuing failure.  Edison is a household name today, and we have him to thank every time we stumble to the switch and flip on a light to save us from stubbing our toes in the middle of the night.  In addition to the light bulb, Edison held over 1,000 patents including the phonograph and a form of motion pictures.  He was prolific, and brilliant.  And he was an expert in learning from failure. 

 While working on the light bulb, he failed over 6,000 times.  At one point a young journalist reportedly asked him why he kept trying when he had failed so many times.  Edison responded, “Young man, don’t you realize that I have not failed, but have successfully discovered 6,000 ways that won’t work?”  Edison continued, undaunted by 13 months of repeated failures, until his vision became a reality.  We could all learn a bit from his example, and his words, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” 

When we teach kids that they can risk; that they can fail; and that they can learn from failure, regroup and try again; we give them life skills that will help them to truly be successful.

Top photo by pavaranda.

Light bulb photo by thatsmytur.



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6 responses to “Learning to Be a Successful Failure

  1. Tracie

    wow – powerful. it is amazing how empowering it is for children to take risks to learn, and amazing how many want to swaddle kids in cotton wool and protect them from the experience.thanks so much for this insight~

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  3. Thank you for this post – I really enjoyed reading it. I’ve been doing a bit of reading on helping our kids develop resilience. Like anything, the early years are critical for developing resilience and one of the building blocks seems to be giving kids lots of time and space for free play. Through free play they encounter problems to be solved, practice skills until they feel successful, experience failure and learn to give it another go. Learning to fail is such an important part of building resilience.

    My son had a teacher in his first year of school who used to celebrate mistakes. “Great” she’d say. “Mistakes are fabulous. This is how we learn” and then she’d support them through the process. I really believe she helped him to develop the attitude he still has at 11 – to give things a go.

  4. Fear of failure can be so de-motivating as an adult, it is so important to nurture our children’s confidence to take risks. I enjoyed the example of Edison as a ‘failure!’

  5. Thank you very much for this post 😀

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