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Failing your way through the new year

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About Charlie Park

Charlie lives with his wife and three daughters outside of San Francisco. He runs PearBudget, enjoys being outdoors, and really loves a good library.

Not long ago, some new friends invited us over for dinner. We were eating some chips and salsa before the meal, and one of their kids came through the room and overheard the dad say something about a big project of his that had flopped. The kid then blurted out, rather loudly: “My dad fails a lot.”

I responded with the first thing that came to mind: “That’s fantastic!”

Failure is an option.

If, like Tsh, you’re hoping to risk a bit more in 2014, I want you to get chummy with a friend of mine: failure.

gymnastics

Here’s the part of the post where I dress failure up in fancy words that make it sound glorious: Failure is an opportunity for grace, nobility, and a re-focused sense of purpose.

Hahaha. Okay. Now that’s over (whew!), here’s the part of the post where I’m more honest.

Let’s be frank: failing is brutal. It’s deflating. Depressing. And the bigger the risk, the bigger the failure … and the bigger your hesitancy to get back on the horse. I think “celebrate failure” is actually fairly hollow advice, so please don’t think this post is saying “yay, failure!” It’s not.

But failure is a handy proxy. It’s a side effect. If you’re trying new things, and those new things are outside of your comfort zone, you’ll end up failing at some of them.

When you fail, you can learn. And when you don’t fail, by definition: you’ve succeeded! At that thing! That was kind of big and unknown and a bit scary!

In both cases, you can push yourself a bit harder next time.

So it’s not that failure is, itself, a good thing. It’s that failure points to other things — challenge, growth, adventure, experimentation — in your world. And those are good.

surfing

How to fail well

One of the big dangers of risk-taking is that you’ll succeed and won’t know why. One of the nice things about failure is that you can often pinpoint where things went wrong.

“I should speak up earlier next time.”
“I should’ve re-measured that angle again before I cut the wood.”
“Maybe two hikes in two days is a little too much for us.”
“I should’ve spent more on the higher-quality version of this thing, instead of going for the cheaper one (that’s now broken).”

Unless you make note of what went wrong, though, it’s easy to let the lessons pass you by. Your failures are whispering to you. Listen to them!

So how can you fail more, and fail in a way that you can learn, so you can then have better successes down the road? Here are a few ideas.

Get a failbuddy.

failbuddy

You probably have a friend or two who you see every once in a while where you sit down at their kitchen table, you both sigh, and one of you says “so how are you?” Or something similar. Think of that person. Got it? Perfect. That’s your new failbuddy.

  • From now on, before the end of the first cup of coffee, you have to both share something you’ve tried and failed at recently.
  • Before you pour the second cup, you have to share what you’ve learned from the failure.
  • Before you finish the second cup, you have to share something you’ll try before you hang out again.

We don’t like to talk about failures because they feel like a moral failing. Like we’re a bad person because we messed up. Having a friend who’s also pushing themselves in difficult ways makes failure less stigmatizing.

Keep a fail log.

You can do this in a number of ways, but the easiest is to take what you currently use to write notes and just create a new one of those. I really like Evernote, but the medium doesn’t really matter as long as it’s one you’re comfortable with.

As you go through your day, keep a running log of the things you’re trying. Every time you learn something from a failure, write down two new lines.

  1. Line one should start with “Failure:” Write down what happened.
  2. Line two should start with “Lesson:” Write down what you learned.

Even if you haven’t figured out the lesson quite yet, at least start the exercise by writing down the failure. A lesson will come to you. Promise.

Show your kids that failure’s okay

Those of us with kids want them to “succeed.” I’m on board with that. Absolutely. But if the only goal we’ve given our kids is that they “succeed,” they’ll be poorly-equipped to handle failure. They won’t push themselves, because either they won’t want to fail, or they won’t want to let you down. They’ll live too-safe lives.

I’ve heard that one of the things pediatricians look for during checkups is scrapes and scabs on kids’ knees. They’re a good sign. They show that the child is pushing herself, learning to run, and jump, and play, and sometimes that play exceeds her capabilities.

Teach your kids that failure’s inevitable when you’re living life. Teach them that learning from failure isn’t inevitable, but that it’s something they can learn to do well.

water

Go forth and fail

I hope your 2014 is a year of adventure, risk, and experimentation. And I hope that, along the way, you leave some failures in your wake.

That new recipe you’re not sure if you’re up to trying?
Make it.
That craft project you’ve wanted to try but you worry about how it’ll turn out?
Do it.
That friendly-looking person at the park about whom you’ve thought “Friend?”
Say hi.

Put yourself out there, don’t be afraid of failure, and don’t be afraid for the people in your life to think about you: “They fail a lot. And it’s fantastic.”

I’d love to know: When you fail at something, are there any tricks you have for learning from them? Are there any lessons you’ve recently learned the hard way (and are brave enough to share)? Have you recently succeeded at something, despite being pretty sure it wasn’t going to work out?

Join the Conversation

Comments

  1. This is one of the best blog posts I have read in a long time. I think about failure a lot. I’ve been trained to, as a musician in a competitive world. It is a good thing but even though I’ve known that for the longest time it’s hard to actualize that optimism. I like the idea of a failure buddy.

  2. What a great post! I definitely do not love failure, but when you put it in the perspective of taking risks, it is a lot more palatable. I want my kids to take risks, and to try new things, even if they aren’t naturally good at them. And in order for them to feel the freedom of trying new things they need to see me doing it as well. I think it is easy to try and hide your failures, especially from your children. You don’t want to seem weak to them, but maybe that is exactly what they need to see! Great thoughts!

  3. Hi Tsh,

    Thanks for the great post (by Charles). I really agree with a lot of it – failure is important.
    I had a question though, and I really hope this doesn’t come off the wrong way. One of the Weekend Links you posted was by Heidi Stone about “Destroying your child through Facebook”. I loved that article, and it really resonated with me. I wonder if using GIFS of children “failing” in some way might be perpetuating the obsession with “fail” pictures of children.

    I know this was not something you intended, and perhaps others don’t agree with me, but I just wanted to add my two cents. GREAT post, by the way.

    Allie

    • Hi Allie,

      I don’t agree that the pictures are negative, because I see that those children were trying and that’s never a bad thing. Best, Mags.

      • I like this article and it has a lot of great ideas; however, I have to admit I also cringed when I saw the poor little girl falling. There isn\’t really any way she could consent to her failure being replayed for eternity on an internet looping GIF, just because we might learn a lesson from it. Likely it was created by someone for the sake of hilarity, to make fun of her, not to illustrate a profound philosophy on perseverance.

      • I was actually too busy concentrating on hey how did she do those animated pictures?

    • Hey there, Allie! Thanks so much for the comment, and for the sensitivity towards kids’ wellbeing (now and future).

      The article from the Weekend Links was a great one (link, for anyone who missed it), and I fully agree with it — public shaming is, in my mind, never ever appropriate. Kids make choices, and kids fail. Mocking them for that goes completely against the spirit of learning from failure. But there’s a difference between tearing into a child in a public place / forum for a mistake they made and laughing, along with them, at a slapstick mishap. I can’t speak to the attitude of the gymnastics girl or her parents, but I know my own kids would — if they faceplanted like that — think it would be just about the funniest thing in the world if it were turned into a gif. We would laugh together, and then I’d encourage them to get back up and try the somersault again. I’d probably give it a shot, too, and then we’d have two gifs. :)

  4. avatar
    Grace from London says:

    Thank you, Thank you, Thank you. I have decided to take up the piano again after 20 years and also go attend a cooking course. Both will be very high-risk activity. Your post have confirmed that I need to go do it!
    Thank you.

  5. Thank you for this empowering post. It’s exactly what I need for the new year. And thank you for not saying “celebrate failure”. That’s too easy, and too overused. In my view, very often quantity produces quality which means there is going to be a lot of failure in the beginning, but it’s going to be less and less as you become closer to being an expert!

  6. As an educator, you are taught to be a reflective practitioner. I believe that carried into my everyday life, even after I left the classroom to be home with my kiddos. Most often we use a journal/log to reflect. Great post!! :)

  7. I believe there are two types of people in the world: first, the type of people that take great deal delight in pointing out your failures in the way that will humiliate and embarass you the most, and second, the type of people that laugh with you when you do something silly, point out the time they did something just as daft, and generally make failure into a positive experience.

    One of the things I love most about my husband is that he falls very definitely into the latter category and thinks me being a numpty when I do things wrong is just adorable. I hope I reciprocate this equally with him.

    Having people in your life who are of the first category is soul-destroying and stifling, whereas having those from the second is completely uplifting and empowering.

  8. Just last week our daughter was unwilling to get on her two wheel bike because she was afraid of falling… again. My husband and I both had a chance to tell her about how we’d fallen off our bikes too and that the trick to learning to ride was getting back on.

    This morning she rode all the way to school! All she needed to get back on was to know that falling is part of life.

    Thanks for the great thoughts on failure and getting back in the game.

  9. It took me fourteen years, hundreds of rejections, and ten manuscripts to finally see a book on the shelf. Those years of failure taught me so much. If the worst thing someone can say to me is no, I’ve learned it’s no big deal.

  10. I know this lesson is aimed at us as adults, but it’s helped me see a pretty important parenting lesson, that I REALLY need to learn:
    This month, my son is back in swim lessons. He had a rough go during his last round (too short to touch in the part of the pool where his class is held), and hasn’t wanted to try again for almost a year. I could tell he was nervous for his first lesson, but I was so proud when he turned to me and said, “Mom, I’m ready to try my best.” He’s still sputtering and floundering a lot, but… he’s perservering… and getting up and trying again.

    Here’s my take away:
    I need to remember to give him grace to flounder and flail about in other things that he’s learning, too.

  11. Have you read “Rosie Revere, Engineer”? It is a children’s book with a great message about failing and learning from it. I am an engineer with young sons and I love the message that it sends, both to them and to me!

  12. Thank you for writing this and for sharing it, it was exactly what I needed to turn things around today.

  13. What perfect timing to read this! I was just writing today about my experience with chronic illness, and how it made me feel like a failure since I could not achieve the same goals I used to have. What I learned was to set new and different goals, pace myself, and see the value in myself for who I am, rather than what I can (or can’t) do.

  14. Those gifs are hilarious. I needed that pick me up, given that it’s still January and I’ve already bailed on a few New Year’s resolutions.

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