Why are so many people so afraid of failure? Quite simply because no one tells us how to fail so that failure becomes an experience that will lead to growth. We forget that failure is part of the human condition and that every person has the fight to fail.
Most parents work hard at either preventing failure or protecting their children from the knowledge that they have failed. One way is to lower standards. A mother describes her child’s hastily made table as “Perfect”! Even though it wobbles on uneven legs. Another way is to shift blame, If John fails science, his teacher is unfair or stupid.
The trouble with failure-prevention devices that they leave a child unequipped for life in the real world. The young need to learn that no one can be best at everything, no one can win all the time—and that it’s possible to enjoy a game even when you don’t win. A child who’s not invited to a birthday party, who doesn’t make the honor roll or the baseball team, feels terrible, of course. But parents should not offer a quick consolation prize or say, “It doesn’t matter” because it does. The young should be allowed to experience disappointment—and be helped to master it.
Failure is never pleasurable. It hurts adults and children alike. But it can make a positive contribution to your life once you learn to use it. Step one is to ask “Why did I fail?” Resist the natural impulse to blame someone else. Ask yourself what you did wrong, how you can improve. If someone else can help, don’t be shy about inquiring. Success, which encourages repetition of old behavior, is not nearly as good a teacher as failure. You can learn a lesson from a disastrous party how to give a good one, from an ill-chosen first house what to look for in a second. Even a failure that seems definitive can prompt fresh thinking, a change of direction. After 12 years of studying ballet a friend of mine auditioned for a professional company. She was turned down. “Would further training help?” she asked. The ballet master shook his head. “You will never be a dancer,” he said, “You haven’t the body for it.”
In such cases, the way to use failure is to take stock courageously, asking “What have I left? What else can I do?” My friend put away her toe shoes and moved into dance therapy, a field where she’s both competent and useful. Failure frees one to take risks because there’s less to lose. Often there’s a resurgence of energy—an awareness of new possibilities.