Monday, November 17, 2008

The Positive Side of Failure

There is a thought-provoking column in today's Globe and Mail by Roy MacGregor, who offers his reaction to a high school principal considering banning 'F's' because it 'hurts kids' feelings.'

Many teachers, especially the veterans, will find much truth in his views on the potentially positive results of failure:

The Fs in my past stand for first-rate life lessons


From Monday's Globe and Mail
November 17, 2008 at 12:36 AM EST

Just my luck.

Not only born in the wrong century, but in the wrong province.
Were I heading into high school this year in Saskatoon, there's an excellent chance I would escape ever receiving that report card that sits in an old folder in the filing cabinet: History F… Algebra F… Chemistry F…. French F… Latin F…each “F” written and circled in red ink – just in case my parents might miss them.

No, if this bright young lad were headed for Nutana Collegiate, there wouldn't be much fear, as the “F” letter may soon be banned there.

Apparently, it hurts kids' feelings.

“We don't need to degrade the student by giving them a number,” the school principal was quoted this weekend as saying. “Incomplete” or “no mark” would amount to the same thing, but not so “demoralizing” as an actual “F” – so as of the end of January, the “F” may be dropped from the Nutana alphabet.

I could have used that a hundred years ago in that small Ontario town as I dragged my sorry way back up over the hills to a home where family members were already practising their fist pumps in anticipation of much earlier letters in the alphabet.

Back then, I would gladly have traded my place in the vice-principal's office with those of Nutana, but not in retrospect. Over time, I came to mark that slap-in-the-face kick-in-the-seat-of-the-pants as the best thing that ever happened. It was about discovering you just couldn't slide through without paying the slightest attention. When the school let me back in after some inappropriate snivelling, I had learned a lesson that didn't have a classroom – and I like to think I never forgot it.

We don't spend enough time on the plus side of failure.

It was interesting to watch Michael Ignatieff this week as he announced he was once again running for the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada and practically boasted about his spectacular flameout in the same quest two years ago. And the reception among pundits this time round seemed curiously warmer, as if failure first time round had somehow made him a more rounded and more attractive candidate.

Certainly failure did not hold back Saskatchewan's most famous politician. John Diefenbaker ran six times before he finally won an election, then ran, and lost, twice for the Conservative leadership before finally becoming Prime Minister of Canada with what was then the largest majority victory ever.

In Peter C. Newman's instantly celebrated new book Izzy: The Passionate Life and Turbulent Times of Izzy Asper, Newman points out that Asper's magnificent failure in politics (he was once leader of the Manitoba Liberals) drove him back to business, where he eventually built his massive media empire.

But that's just politics, where ultimate failure is a given – at least in a country like Canada where the citizens tend to eat their own grown-ups.

The arts are no different. British mystery author John Creasey was rejected 743 times before selling his first novel – and went on to publish at least 500 more. Pearl S. Buck had a dozen rejection slips before The Good Earth found a publisher.

British author J.K. Rowling is the world's most successful living writer – a billionaire who has sold hundreds of millions of her Harry Potter books – and yet her convocation address this past June to the graduates of Harvard University was entitled: The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination.

Harvard grads, she said, might not be very well acquainted with failure, but before they come up against it – as we all do – they might like to look at it in a different light. She wasn't claiming failure was any fun, but she did think it sometimes necessary and often helpful.

There was a time, Rowling told the puzzled students, when “by every standard, I was the biggest failure I knew.” Seven years after her own graduation, her marriage had failed, she was a single mother and unemployed.

She began scribbling away in coffee shops on a book about wizards.

“Failure,” she said, “meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged.”

Setbacks, Rowling argued, make one stronger, not weaker. Knowing you can survive a setback and move on makes one “secure in your ability to survive” and teaches you more about yourself than any examination can.

“It is impossible,” she said, “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.”

She was speaking to Harvard University, but I hope her words are heard by Nutana Collegiate, which I'm sure is a fine school with a fine principal.
The principal might, however, like to reconsider.

The only school letter I ever earned was an “F.”

And it was richly deserved.

1 comment:

Tamar said...

Thank you for this excellent post. One hears the story about doing away with Fs and thinks-- how is that going to solve the problem? Children CAN learn from failure, especially if they are encouraged to look it straight in the eye and analyse what went wrong so they can do it differently next time. If that analysis isn't happening, than this is the school's failure- yes?

These are issues very near and dear to my heart and my professional mission. In my new book, Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies for Building a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility and Happiness, I devote an entire chapter to the topic of teaching kids how to fail successfully, to analyse the causes of went wrong, what is permanent, what is changeable, what is under their control, what is not, etc, so that they can persevere.

This is a two-person job, parents often need to learn these lessons themselves in order to be good coaches to their children.

If you'd like to see an excerpt, please go to:

Here's to more resilient kids (and parents too).

All best,
Tamar Chansky