Celebrating Failures

I remember the chaos, hearing people screaming and pushing to get to the exits.

I remember sliding down the airplane safety slide. I thought it was fun.

I was 5, and it was my first trip to Greece. The Olympic Airlines jumbo jet blew a tire during take off. We circled around JFK airport and made an emergency landing. We sat crouched down, holding our knees. I remember taking a peek and looking up at my Mama. She was calm, confident that everything was going to be alright. Her faith guiding her through this unforeseen failure to depart.

I always think about my first airplane ride, when I fly. And I did this summer, as I traveled to Greece with my daughter. Our trip to Greece was a homecoming of sorts for me. I knew it was going to be an emotional journey. It was time for me to heal and reflect on my personal failure; the breakdown of my marriage and divorce.

At times, I feel society is a bit obsessed with failure. The Silicon Valley mantra of “Fail Fast, Fail Often” is one that comes to mind. I think this ideology is misleading. People celebrate everything from failing early to failing quickly to failing cheaply to failing forward — whatever that means.

I also feel we celebrate failure a bit too much. Our learners have become accustomed to failing and celebrating the failure. Many times a player or losing team gets a “participation prize”, a reward for failing. As educators, we constantly tell our learners to embrace it.  “Mistakes are good”, “Failure is our friend”, “Lets celebrate our failed attempts!”.  

I can’t help but wonder, should every failure be celebrated? Are we celebrating the failure or the learning and risk taking? Is there something to celebrate from my personal failure?

I thought about these questions for a long time, a few things did come to mind. While this loosening of attitudes toward failure is without a doubt valuable, we, as educators, really need to be careful that we’re not focusing on the wrong thing. Failure is not our goal. Failure is simply a common byproduct — it’s not the desired end-product. 

The only way that failure becomes useful is if you reflect on it, learn from it. We should be celebrating this learning and risk taking, not the actual failure itself. And yes, there is much to learn from our failed attempts. Most of the learning from our defeat helps us to feel better about being defeated. Coming to terms with it provides us with a coping mechanism for an experience that is naturally and excruciatingly unpleasant.  Accepting it gives us the hope that we can live to see another day; it transforms a loss into a gain, and it increases our resilience as we imagine the possibilities of the future.

As I reflect back on my first plane ride, I can remember the thunderous sound of the plane skidding on the pavement and the smell of fumes. When it finally came to a complete halt, passengers began to clap, whistle and cheer. Were they celebrating the failure of departing? No. They were celebrating the experience of our pilot, the lessons he learned in landing a plane full of passengers. Even in all the chaos, the fear, and the failure of us reaching our destination, I guess there was STILL something to celebrate.

I’m Just Not That Into You

“Mommy, I’m bored.”

I’ve been hearing this phrase most days from my youngest, Sarah. Summer seems to have taken on a steady, predictable routine. Sarah is a bright and vivacious child. She enjoys reading and can make a mean stromboli. Her passions, like most seven year olds, are Minecraft and Roblox. For a few years now, she has been playing these online games religiously. I was quite shocked to see that she was losing interest in them and reciting the “bored” phrase.

I am not the mom that sets up all sorts of activities for her children. I think boredom is an important skill to maneuver in life. So, I usually respond to her with this question, “What are you going to do about your boredom?” She then finds something to occupy her time and challenge her thinking.

We’re On a Break

A year ago, I felt the same way. I am a life long learner and I’m passionate about learning. I often read the latest educational books, blogs, and articles to quench my thirst. But they quickly became a mirrored reflection of each other.

My favorite educational blog was becoming dull and platitudinous. I faithfully read and reread posts. I commented on them, shared them, even wrote blog posts about their blog post. I learned and agreed with much of what was written. But, as time went on, I felt that the posts were redundant. The same stories, same ideas, and quotes seemed to carry through to the next post. The magic that I felt initially wasn’t there.

So, I stopped reading my favorite blog. Not only did I stop reading it, but I stopped following the author’s pages elsewhere too.

I also stopped reading many educational books and participating in Twitter chats. Student autonomy, personalized education, and project based learning were the recurring themes, swirling around each book, article, and chat. Even the educational conferences I went to focused on the “big three”. It seemed to me that there was nothing new, nothing fresh. I’m just not that into you, I thought. I wondered why and what brought this on? How could I lose interest in learning? Most importantly, what am I going to do about my boredom?

I took a hiatus from it all. I took a step back.

nothinking1

Thinking Differently vs Knowledge Gained

When I worked in the Chester School District, in Chester, NJ, I had a student that would take a break during group projects. He was an exceptional student, gifted in his own right. If he felt the solution to a problem on which his group was working was typical or easy, he would get up, leave the group for a bit, and stand at the opposite end of the room. One day, I asked him why he did that. His profound response has stayed with me all these years,

“Well, Mrs Howard, sometimes I don’t see things well up close. Everybody is doing stuff and it just looks all the same to me. Everyone’s ideas are the same and they’re all saying the same stuff. I just wanna think about it. I understand it and know what we have to do. I have an idea, but I need to think about how that would look and work out. I can’t with all the buzz over there”.

Many use the phrase, “Great minds think alike”. But is that a good thing? Is it good when we all are thinking alike? And doing like things?

Sometimes we need to step away to think about what we’ve learned, what to do with this learning, and how it applies to us. I certainly do not feel in any way that I have “learned it all” and I hope my post does not come across as such. But, I feel that the knowledge I have gained from my favorite blog, from Twitter and educational materials, is second to the ideas and thinking that it has sparked.

“The ability to perceive or think differently is more important than the knowledge gained.”  ~ David Bohm

Coming Around Again

Our relationship with the things we are passionate about will be on a continuous cyclical, peak and valley journey. If you find yourself losing interest in your passion, try to reconnect with why you actually fell in love with it. What was it that attracted you to your craft? If you want to fall back in love with your work, you need to show up to your relationship differently and with different expectations. Here are a few ideas:

  • Approach your work from a beginner’s mind. Focus on experiencing it with a state of curiosity and exploration. Help create something new; new units, lessons, projects, a new committee or even a book club among your staff. Try incorporating something new into your units of study, tech tools or a different platform that you have been interested in learning.
  • Mentor others.  Learning is a social activity. Connect with a complete novice in your field. Offer to mentor them and soak up some of their enthusiasm and excitement. Also, get to know your resources. Become familiar with colleagues and their areas of expertise.
  • Ask how you can nurture your passion, rather than expecting the flame to be automatically lit. Discuss you’re lack of interest with an administrator, or colleague. Maybe they too had a similar situation and can offer assistance. How are you going to nurture your passion?

Remember that the fastest way to kill your passion is by comparing yourself to the accomplishments of others. Instead, focus on your vision. Everyone’s starting point, journey, and end point will be different. There’s no reason to compare or compete.

Ironically today, Sarah began playing Minecraft again. Strangely enough, I saw the latest post from my favorite blog. I didn’t understand how it could appear on my news feed as I no longer follow it.  But, I guess God works in mysterious ways.