Learning to Fail

Learning to Fail June 12, 2019

We work with college students and I was in youth ministry for ten years before that. The students we know struggle with the same struggle I face every day. A crippling fear of failure.


Why Are We Afraid?

Simply put, we are afraid to fail because we are not really sure where the boundary line is between our ability and our identity. We don’t really feel comfortable with any space between the core of who we are and the ideas we share.

And so, if our ideas are rejected or if our ability falls short, we suspect it will reveal something definitive about who we are. Something devastating. Something we won’t be able to recover from.

And so, we avoid failure like the plague. Which, of course, is not always a bad thing. I guess it beats pursuing failure like it is the ice cream truck. But it does have a downside.



As we grow up, our parents set boundaries for us. If they are good parents, the boundaries slowly widen throughout the years. As an infant we are watched all the time, given tight boundaries with bedtimes and strict discipline when we misbehave. Then as teens, the boundaries slack a little. We can be out with friends without our parents there to watch us (but we have to call); we have a curfew but not a bedtime.

All this is to prepare us for the world. Child-rearing is a prep course for living as an adult. What my parents annoyingly called “the real world”. The boundaries parents set along the way are to teach us the truth. What are the consequences when you scream at a stranger in public? What are the consequences when you drink too much?

My point here is that failure is a kind of learning process as well. In a similar way, it teaches us the truth about boundaries and consequences. It lets us know the limits of our capability (at least at the time) and humbles us with reminders that what we do affects others.

We avoid this at all costs. We want to live in a fantasy world where we can do no wrong. We think that is the only way to protect our identity. Which is silly, but we can’t seem to shake the suspicion. The proof is out there. People fail all the time and learn and grow from it. Even when people’s failures have dire consequences, it is still not definitive of their whole person. They may be destroyed professionally from their mistakes, but that does not mean they are worthless personally.

All of the participation trophies and the terrible singers during the first episode of American Idol show that we live in a world drifting further from the truth. We have parents who aren’t showing kids what boundaries look like.

I read a story this week about a father who asked his kids at the dinner table every week, “so, what did you fail at this week?” I thought it was amazing. He made failure something his kids didn’t have to be ashamed of. Sometimes, the story went, he was downright excited when the kids had failed and they got to talk about what they learned from the mistake. The result? An adult willing to take risks and feel confident in who they are. They failed as an adult and then succeeded spectacularly. All because they were not afraid to test the boundaries of what they can do.

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