Failure isn’t fatal, it’s fortunate. In fact, it’s necessary.
Somehow, failure has come to be synonymous with worthless, hopeless, futureless and bad. We hear it as a judgment on ourselves, our kids, and our families. You’re a total failure. Take your ball and go home. We don’t want you here.
Can we take a new look at failure?
When I evaluate a person in a fitness test, whether they’re an athlete or not, adult or child, male or female, I test for failure. I actually set them up with an exercise that they can’t complete, on purpose. Then I encourage and motivate them to try as hard as they can to do as much as they can until they can’t do anymore. That’s failure; muscle failure. It’s the point where they stop, or I stop them, because they can’t complete the next repetition with proper form.
I must know their failure-point to design their exercise prescription. Maxing them out shows me what they can do, in that moment, with that muscle group. It’s a snapshot of their performance. Then, based on that point, I can decide how many sets and how many reps at what resistance they should train in order to improve, and to push on to their next level, where, yes, they’ll fail again.
In some ways, I am simply coaching them from one failure to the next. The first failure becomes a speed bump or a hurdle along the road to the next. If I don’t push them to failure, I won’t get an accurate assessment of what they can do. Then the prescription is nullified. My training plan is useless.
It’s the same when I evaluate a student in the classroom. No matter the grade level, ability level, gender, race or socio-economic status, I must assess to failure. That is, in order for the assessment to succeed, I must get to a question or two which are too hard for them to answer. That’s how I know we have arrived at the endpoint. That’s how I know what to work on, what to review, or what to add so they continue to be challenged.
No student should get all the answers right. If they did, I would be failing them, because my job is to help them get better. To do that, I must find out what they already know and don’t and what they can already do and can’t, so I can give them something just a bit harder to reach for.
Failure is not fatal, it’s essential. If development is our goal, then honest assessment is a must, so we know where to begin. The clearer we are about the purpose of assessing and the better we become at performing individualized assessments, the better for every kid of every ability.
But we get in our own way. We hear failure or failing – which for many of our achieving kids has become synonymous with a grade of C or even B – and we launch ourselves at the teacher or the principle. We hear B-team, or bench-warmer – which for our kids who have always been starters feels like 2nd class or 2nd rate – and we call, text or email the coach.
Doesn’t the teacher see? hasn’t the coach observed? what a good student she is or what a good teammate he is? She’s such a good girl, he’s such a friendly boy.
And so they are. Our kids are good kids! An assessment of less than perfect doesn’t mean they aren’t. It simply identifies the place their game needs improving, or the subject that is hard for them. It’s a starting point for better.
Everyone doesn’t get an A and a 100% on the exam. They wouldn’t need to take my class if they did. Everyone doesn’t have superior skill. If they did they wouldn’t belong on this team. Instead we offer teams for a range of talents and abilities. Not everyone performs at the same level. That’s why we offer an A and a B team. If you’re lucky there’s even a C team.
If we water down our scale and promote everyone to the top, we are the ones who should receive the failing grade, because we are failing our kids. Honest, capable, credible assessment is good for our kids because it shows them where they are and it shows us how to help them be better.
To get there, we, as parents and guardians, must re-work our meaning of failure. It doesn’t mean hopeless, lost, or worthless. If you’re trying your best, it simply means you’ve reached your limit and have come to the edge of today’s ability. Tomorrow is another day. It’s the day you start pushing past yesterday’s failure toward tomorrow’s failure.
What if we challenged our kids to try so hard they absolutely gave out? They would have arrived at failure but not be failures. In fact, that would be the intersection with the road to success.
Failure isn’t fatal, it’s functional. It’s not the end of the road, it’s their new starting line. If we just let kids get there.