If you have been anywhere near public education in the last ten years, you have probably heard somebody declare with great conviction “Failure is not an option”. In most cases, this sentiment is expressed by very well-meaning educators and has served as a mantra to symbolize our collective desire to ensure that no student receives anything other than our best effort for his/her success. Too often though, it seems that this rhetoric is applied with haphazard ubiquity. The effect I have seen it have is that educators get the message that we can not afford to tolerate failure of any kind. That misapplication of a very well-intentioned message leads not to relentless excellence but to cautious risk-management and a slavish adherence to the status quo. The students we serve need us to abandon this mindset. They will not be adequately prepared for the future they will face by adults who play it safe and teach them to avoid failure too.
I propose a new attitude about failure and the risk of failure. Every educator and every student should be given explicit permission – and indeed challenged – to act in ways that include a high risk of failure. Here (in no particular order) are a few reasons why.
Failure is inevitable
When we act as though failure can be avoided completely, we reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of nature. It is simply not possible to never fail. We sometimes seem to lose sight of the fact that failing is an integral part of learning. The only way to never fail is to never try. A baby who is learning to walk is in fact falling more than he is walking. Preventing him from falling will not teach him to walk. Showing him how to keep from falling will. The greatest tragedy is not falling down; the greatest tragedy is not getting back up.
Failure is a better teacher than success
As a teacher, I have seen first-hand students’ obsession with getting the right answer (so they can get a good grade) instead of a passion for learning. We have instilled in them the wrong message. Being right the first time every time leads to far less learning than being wrong over and over at first. If I do not lead a student to a place that requires growth, why did she need me in the first place? Failure-as-learning works for adults too. Innovation can not possibly be accomplished by individuals who are afraid to fail.
The higher the goal, the greater the potential for failure
We have set for ourselves the goal of shaping the course of young people’s lives. I can not think of a task more risky or difficult. How can we possibly believe that this task will be accomplished by a strict adherence to irrelevant traditions or a careful implementation of the latest program … to fidelity? If I am not free to fail though, I will almost certainly act in a way that is known to work. We must take risks if the education we are offering this generation has any relevance to them in their adulthood at all.
History will forget you either way – you might as well try to change it
I may be alone, but I often find comfort in this thought. What use does history have for those who play it safe? Also, how arrogant do I have to be to believe that I was born to build and protect my own puny reputation? If I am truly serving the interests of others, any cost to me personally will be justified. Actions that echo through history are unlikely to be without cost to those willing to take them. The unwillingness of so many to take meaningful action makes such sacrifices necessary.
The cure for a fear of failure is failure
What I am proposing is not easy. I have been trying to nurture this paradigm since I became a principal in 2011. Old habits die hard though and I am often reminded that removing the cause of a fear and removing the fear are two different things. The best way to lose one’s terror of failure is to fail … and to survive the failure to try again.
Give those around you permission to fail. Nurture the kind of courage that accepts the possibility of failure in the pursuit of excellence. Pick yourself up with dignity (and humility) when you fail yourself; hiding your own failures will diminish this message. When you understand that failure may actually be preferable from time to time, it will no longer have the power to keep you in check.