Monday, May 25, 2009


After 6 weeks of working at a preschool I have learned a few things. Even though I am there to teach the kids, they have as many lessons for me as I do them. And the most applicable to my current status in life is the value of failure. I know we have discussed this in previous posts but I want to address it one more time, since I really feel it is so important.

As a shaper of young minds, as I guess I am for one more week, one tends to think of the most effective way to teach these kids what is right and wrong, what works and what doesn't. Having lived 22, almost 23 years, I know a thing or two about how to do things. Sure I have a lot to learn. But when it comes to the capabilities of a 5 year old, I like to think I have the experience to make an attractive lady bug out of construction paper, and I can handle a puzzle with pieces larger than my hand. So I could very easily lead them through each task by essentially telling them what to do and when. But how would that prepare them for being 22 or even 12. They wouldn't learn a thing, other than it is handy to have someone there who knows what to do. Instead, asking them how they think it should be done, or what they think about whatever we are talking about emphasizes the process of getting something right, through that beautiful teacher that is failure. Getting something wrong is the best way to show someone how to do it right. None of us rode perfectly the first time we sat on a bike without training wheels. But being afraid to fail would surely keep us from trying. We could ask our parents a million questions about how to ride a bike, what to do when you start to lean too much in one direction, etc, but having all of that in our heads would be no substitute for that experience of actually trying it.

Revisiting that speaking tour by Rob Bell that I talked about a few posts back, he had a great lesson about failure. He told the story of a pottery class. At the beginning of the two week course the teacher split the class into two groups. To one group he said, "spend the next two weeks making only one piece of potterty, that your final grade will be based on." To the other group he said, "spend the next two weeks making as many pieces as possible, just churn them out as quickly as you can, spend every free moment making pottery pieces, and at the end of two weeks you will have to pick just one to be graded on." At this point in the story it becomes clear that one group will have the better pieces, and both Alex and I are sitting there thinking, "of course its going to be the group that focuses on just one piece. The other group is going to be churning out pottery pieces at such a rate that they wont spend enough time on them and they will be sloppy." Rob continues to tell us that at the end of two weeks, the group that made just one piece has all these elaborate theories on what makes a great piece and what techniques are most effective, etc. But their pieces looked terrible. On the other hand, the group that made as many pieces as possible had these intricate, interesting pieces because they had failed so many times that they learned from experience what worked and what did not. We were dead wrong.

I think that story exemplifies the tragedy of young people, maybe just young people from our generation. Or maybe I shouldn't speak for my peers and instead should say that it exemplifies a problem that I have. I don't know if there is a word for it but I have failure-phobia. I am afraid to do anything until I know enough about it because I want to remove all doubt that I will succeed. I get this idea that I can figure anything out, that I am smart enough to learn enough about whatever it is I have to do before doing it, so that when it comes time to do it I will know enough about it to get it right and thus not fail. From a larger perspective I think us young people get it in our head that we have to live the perfect life from the starting gate, that "hey, you've had time to think and to ponder life, now get living and do it right." That we have to pick one career path and stay on it and never waver (see previous posts for more on this).

How did we get this way? We surely failed enough as children, chose wrong, flip-flopped. I would wager that at least 99% of the things I can now say I can do I failed at the first time, maybe more than that. So why are we (or at least am I) still so afraid to fail.

I read an article recently that described a failed movement in child rearing that unfortunately affected quite directly my generation. It was the self-esteem movement, in which starting in the 80's parents and teachers started good-jobing every kid for everything they did, even if it sucked. You drew a couple of letters backwards it was "good job" not, you were close, nice effort, but this was wrong. You struck out in baseball, "good job." Not, it's alright, try again next time, keep your head up! It lingers today. If you walk around the preschool I work at you will hear "good job" being barked all the time. I do it too. It's hard not to. But what this achieves is not its intended consequence. Instead, it gave us the sense that everything we do is amazing even if its not. Instead of being told "its ok to fail" we were told, "you didn't fail, you did a great job!" Well did we? Of course not, but instead of learning to cope with the fact that we just aren't good at everything, we believed we were. And now as we enter the harsh "real world" as we like to call it, we find it less enthused with our efforts. So even though we failed thousands of times as kids, we are only now confronting that fact. We are confronting the fact that we are not good at everything. And what we still need to confront is the fact that experience is important. That sitting around theorizing about perfect pottery will produce garbage. It's ok to fail. We learn from it. In many ways it's more important than succeeding. So, lets go out there and make as much pottery as possible, and enjoy the experience. Sounds a heck of a lot better than sitting in a room for two weeks making nothing but your head spin. Theories are important. But they mean nothing if they aren't practiced.


  1. I question your paper-ladybug-making skills.

  2. I make a mean paper-ladybug let me tell you.

  3. In the parenting book I am still writing, our key point in the section on science is summed up in one sentence: "You don't have to be the answer man." When your kid asks you if rocks are alive, or why the wind blows, refrain from launching into a correct explanation; instead, ask "What do you think?" Of course, this is the underlying principle of DI, isn't it? Grown-ups don't feed kids the answers and solutions; they step back and let kids try and fail and try again and figure it out themselves. Even when they see the kids making obvious mistakes--zip mouth! Brilliant!