For some reason, the good Lord blessed me with smart kids. You know, the kind who take two years of calculus in high school and think the ACT is easy? They are, in fact, MUCH smarter than I.
Jordan, the oldest, set the bar high; brilliant and perfectionistic are, perhaps, the two words that best describe him. When he taught himself how to read and play the piano by ear (chords and all) by age four, I knew he had a gift. And when he had a full-fledged meltdown every time he could not do something perfectly on the first try, I knew I would have my hands full.
For the first few years of elementary school, Jordan grew accustomed to getting nearly perfect scores on every test and assignment. He didn’t even have to try; schoolwork was unusually easy for him.
But when he got to sixth grade, the proverbial academic rug was ripped out from underneath him. He got a horrible grade on one test, which landed him a B on his report card (gasp).
To say he was devastated would be an understatement. He sobbed for hours, his frustration leaking out his eyes.
“They are going to kick me out of school with a grade like this!” he exclaimed.
Dramatic? Yes. We have a flair for drama in our family. Getting a B is far from failing in most people’s minds, but he believed every word that escaped his 12-year-old lips. One “bad” grade was grounds for expulsion in his perfectionistic mind.
Outwardly, I was empathetic. I did my best to console him, though my efforts were largely in vain. Inwardly, I was celebrating his first academic failure. Yes, you read that correctly; celebrating.
I felt slightly guilty for my hidden jubilance amidst my son’s despair. But he had easily been successful at almost everything he had tried up to that point, and his young identity was enmeshed with his uncanny ability to be the best. While I was proud of his accomplishments, I also understood that perfection would not always be within his grasp, no matter how hard he tried or how badly he wanted it.
I wanted him to fail so that he would learn that failure is not a life sentence. It is merely a step along the path to success.
Miraculously, Jordan survived his run-in with a B. As the years went by, he had several more experiences with making mistakes and falling short of his own high expectations. When he got to high school and was taking 6 AP classes at a time, drowning in school work, a job, and music lessons, he was a little easier on himself when he was unable to complete everything flawlessly.
He learned a valuable lesson that day so many years ago: get up when you fall, everything will eventually work out, and your identity is not defined by your mistakes.
His perceived failure (because each person’s idea of failure is different) did not mean that he was not capable of success. It did, however, give him remarkable perspective.
Failure gives us two options: give up or try harder. I want my kids to experience that dilemma enough times to understand that walking away from something that is important to them will never get them where they want to be.
I want them to develop persistence, grit, humility, and empathy, all of which are byproducts of overcoming failure.
I want them to understand that success is the result of hard work, not talent alone, and they should never expect things handed to them on the silver platter of entitlement.
I want them to realize that very few people accomplish great things without falling a few times along the way.
I want them to have the courage to live big, even if they don’t reach their goals on the first try. Or the second. Or the tenth.
Take J.K. Rowling, for instance. She was an impoverished single mom when she wrote Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. 12 publishers had rejected it before it was published by Barry Cunningham from Bloomsbury, who told her there was no money in children’s books.
In 2008, this now wealthy author of one of the most popular children’s series of all-time spoke to the graduating class of Harvard. She said this:
You might never fail on the scale I did, but it is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all—in which case, you fail by default.
Now those are wise words.
My kids may never achieve the level of success awarded to J.K. Rowling; few people do. But we can all learn a great deal more from our failures than we ever could from succeeding with little resistance.
I may be a little bit grateful when my kids fail, whether in the realm of academics, sports, musical prowess, or a variety of other areas, but only because I know that falling down has the potential to help them stand taller than they can now imagine.
P.S. You can read about more famous failures and what you can learn from them in this great article.