“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” J.K. Rowling, Harvard Commencement address (2008)
My friend shared her experience in a small town piano recital. Most of the judges felt that giving a child anything less than a perfect grade (superior) was going to be detrimental to that child’s self-esteem. “But they worked so hard,” “She is shy,” “He did his best,” etc. As a result, all except one judge (my friend’s mom, a Piano Guild-certified instructor), gave superior ratings despite the child’s actual performance, which was often times subpar. My friend’s mom, however, wasn’t afraid to give lower ratings, and she received a lot of flak for it around the community.
I think the “everyone is a winner” mentality encourages an unhealthy perception of success and self-worth. When we tell anyone, especially children, that they win even when they lose, or that they performed well on a musical number that they bombed, are we not teaching them that failure is shameful, something to be avoided? But how can we possibly avoid failure? The truth of the matter is that failure is the best teacher. Failure will be the best thing that ever happened to you because it forces you to clarify what you want and then to work harder/more efficiently for that thing. Failure is what pushes you to be better, to improve, and to change. I think we need to be more honest about failure and to allow it into our lives as a teacher—not as a disciplinarian or as a form of punishment—but a stepping stone to future success.
This concept really hit home for me when I read J.K. Rowling’s Harvard Commencement address for the first time. I have returned to it time and again as a reminder of the benefits of failure. Rowling shares a bit of her life story before Harry Potter. She had graduated with a degree in Classics, had moved to a different country, got married and had a child only to have her short marriage fall apart. She ended up a single parent, jobless and well below the poverty line. She shared that “Failure gave me an inner security I had never attained by passing examinations. … I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.” She knows what it feels like to pursue the thing you love and to fall flat on your face time and again. But what came out of that was a sense of confidence that she was “secure in [her] ability to survive.” I just love that. Rowling said, “so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life,” and it can be that way for us, too.
The difference, I think, in our perception of failure comes really in the form of what Carol Dweck calls fixed or growth mindsets. If we allow ourselves to believe that when we fail at something that then defines who we are—we tell ourselves “you are a failure”—we are feeding the pernicious and self-deprecating lie. Failure doesn’t mean that you are a failure. A growth mindset would think “ok, you failed. What can I learn? How can I improve?” It seems like such a small thing to change our self-talk, but it makes a world of difference.
We so often only see the final product of months or years of someone’s efforts—an art piece, a beautifully composed song, a work of literature, a thesis, conference paper, a lesson plan, a certificate of graduation, etc. Sometimes we get into the trap of comparing ourselves to them and wondering what we have accomplished in our lives. As we approach the end of the semester, I hope we can courageously acknowledge and meet our failures head on. The experience will be so much sweeter when we finally receive a superior from the judge who isn’t afraid to tell you how you really did. I hope we can treat ourselves and others with compassion and empathy, and know that no one’s worst moment is his or her most defining moment, but it can definitely be a place to rebuild. And who knows, you might end up finding your way on the Hogwarts Express.
This post was written by Holly Boud, Humanities Center Intern