Monday, January 11, 2010

Fear of Failure...

I was speaking to a friend recently who mentioned the importance of making peace with failure. It’s all very well to strive for almost impossible dreams, he said, but you have to make peace with the fact that you might not succeed. His words struck me deeply for a number of reasons.

Over the past few months three unconnected people have urged me to stay strong. Last year was a brutal year for me. I can usually cope with most of life’s constant setbacks, but with the health of one of my children compromised, I become deeply vulnerable. My load was a heavy one to carry. There were no quick solutions. For once I couldn’t fix this problem myself. This has been one of the most difficult lessons for me to learn. At some point my health suffered too. Swine flu struck in June and it took me months to recover. The temptation to give up my own goals and plans completely was very strong.

Slowly I realised I have to make a conscious effort to get back on the proverbial horse. If you can bear with me extending this metaphor a little longer, I was only just able to stay upright in the saddle at first. And it was during the long recuperation period that I met the three kind people who urged me to stay strong.

Their encouragement touched me deeply. I contemplated what they’d said for many hours. For the first time in years my personal goals and dreams had begun to feel intangible. The road ahead seemed just too damned difficult. And then I had the conversation with my dear friend above.

His words were the key. They reminded me of the Buddhist maxim that one should have no expectations of the outcomes of one’s actions. This has always been a tricky thing for me especially as we are surrounded by a driven and goal-orientated society. However, at this critical point in my life, learning to embrace failure made immense sense. If I carried on the journey without being desperate about the outcomes I wouldn’t take such hard knocks when things didn’t work out they way I’d imagined.

It was about then that I read a report about a young girl who’d failed matric and was so distraught about her abject failure in her eyes that she hanged herself. I couldn’t help thinking about how society’s obsession with winning at all costs often comes at the expense of personal welfare.

One of the worst insults in current usage is to call someone a loser. This attitude is pervasive in all walks of life. Just think of hit Show Survivor. The first time I saw it years ago I was outraged. How could a programme reward someone for lying, cheating and manipulating, I wondered? Now I hardly give the matter a second thought. We’ve become used to the idea that winners can do anything to get to the top. The only criterion that matters, it would seem, is that they win.

Sports teams and individuals are berated for losing in whatever sphere and fans desert their teams if they aren’t constantly on a winning streak. Many children suffer through school because they aren’t in the A-team or aren’t the top achievers. I’m not saying that society and schools should encourage failure but shouldn’t we get people used to the idea that someone has to lose? Perhaps the so-called civilized world needs to re-examine our “success at all costs” philosophy.

I think we as parents and educators have a duty to teach children that it’s okay not to win every time. I heard of a school recently which rewards the child who swims the slowest in their annual gala. This school has no life or death outcomes for the child who doesn’t succeed. A recipe for healthy self-esteem, surely?

This same friend told me that praise releases life-enhancing endorphins. Perhaps that’s why we’re driven so hard to succeed and get rewards. Many primary schools ensure that children are celebrated simply for being who they are. But I believe this celebration becomes even more important in high schools. We, as parents and teachers, have to take our minds off the giant carrot at the end of the matric year for the sake of our children. We need to be very careful that we aren’t instilling a crippling fear of failure into them.

Personally, I’ve found it liberating to remove my almost rigid need to succeed after the recent conversation with my friend. So this is my New Year’s resolution: I will try and stay upright on the horse and, like Don Quixote, aim for the giants I see up ahead. But I resolve to be just as happy if the giants turn out to be windmills instead.


Vera said...

Words of wisdom, Janet. John Malkovich put it along similar lines: "I've permitted myself to learn and to fail with some regularity. And that is probably the one thing I was given, and that I'm still grateful for." Learning to fail without letting it get you down.
As long as you succeed enough to be able to put bread on the table, I guess.

Janet van Eeden said...

Thanks for this Vera. Love the words from John Malkovich. Makes one able to make peace with not being perfect all the time.