The Most Powerful Advice I Ever Received: “Just because it failed doesn’t mean you’re a failure”

Just because it failed, doesn’t mean you’re a failure.

I heard this for the first time when I was in my early 20’s. Having completed an arduous laboratory experiment which required many repetitions over weeks of work, I could draw a conclusion about my hypothesis: it was wrong. Trial after trial proved my result: negative.

Near tears, I reported this to my PhD thesis advisor, Joe Feher, the professor in charge of the lab where I was working. He looked at me sympathetically and a bit quizzically. “So you’ve proven this isn’t the explanation. Good.”

It didn’t feel good to me. If it had failed, I had failed. Joe understood my response and patiently explained, “Just because it failed, doesn’t mean you’re a failure.” Those were words I desperately needed to hear, and so do the kids I work with today. Especially the ones who are trying so hard to get things right to make themselves feel all right.

When our identities get wrapped up in what we’re doing, it is a short step to identify ourselves with our outcomes. Dr. Feher caused me to question this. Turns out I needed to learn this truth, as do so many children I see in youth sports today who co-mingle who they are with what they do and how it all comes out. If I do well — score, win–  then I am good. If I play poorly — fail to score, lose — then I am a loser.

The Positive Coaching Alliance, among other sports teaching and leadership organizations, tries to address this issue by inclining coaches to teach mastery not scoreboard mentality. It’s not about the score, it’s about your effort, your progress, your learning, they teach.

This is healthy instruction, except when our learning environment has become stale and mechanical and trying our hardest yields no results. Over and over, this is the argument made when we have a high profile flame-out in a big stage tournament, as we did when the US men’s national soccer team failed to qualify for the next World Cup competition. Why aren’t we better? Why aren’t we more competitive? Why do we fail?

Because, in our technical training, we have failed to inspire originality and creativity in our kids. Raised in an environment demanding technical mastery — and yes, sport competed at the highest levels requires an enormous amount of technical mastery — we haven’t allowed  them to achieve to the the next level: originality. We have convinced them that effort and technical mastery will win the day. It won’t. At least not for long.

Along with mastering the skill (and this is on-going, for sure) they need to grow a risk-taking and even subversive nature in their game. Instead we regularly squash, caution or even punish these characteristics out of our high-performing athletes. Things like boldness, brashness, confidence and independence of mind are discouraged or even selected off our teams. The things that tax a coach — “don’t challenge my authority out here, young man!” —  we quash, when instead, we should help those kids channel that boldness.

Boldness and a revolutionary spirit are what’s inside of healthy, growing kids that allows them to take risks, to gamble on an outcome, to strike out in a new direction that is untried and may even be a bit subversive. Sure, it may not work. In fact, most experiments don’t work out — don’t I know. When they don’t, we note the negative result and adjust our hypothesis. We move on, using what we have learned.

But to move on in a new direction kids need to embrace the difference between “It failed” and “I am a failure.” It failed, means you achieved a negative result, not, you are a failure. Try again differently.

It’s the “I am a failure if I don’t succeed” mentality, we desperately need to uproot. Far too often, kids who are willing to risk trying a new thing end up failing and then failing themselves. They settle into the safety of repetition and effort, things guaranteed to earn them praise and over which they have complete control, but does this help them improve?

In our teaching or training environments with kids:

  • Are their efforts productive?
  • Are they achieving anything new or original?
  • Are they creating new ways to beat their opponents?
  • Are they finding creative solutions to old problems?

Or, are they playing it safe, hoping that solid defense will be enough to move them onto the next round or up to the next level?

Talent, administered safely, will only get them so far. Creativity breeds originality which has no limits. As it’s been said, talent hits a target no one else can hit, but genius hits a target no one else can see. 

Image result for talent hits the target quoteIf we want our young students, athletes (and researchers) to go further, those who mentor them need to cultivate an environment which incubates originality and even a subversiveness which is impossible for us to control. And then, to guide them to understand for themselves that, when you fail, you’re not a failure, you’re a trail-blazer.

When it works, you’re a genius.


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