An Appetite for Failure

As teachers and parents, we spend most of our time helping children succeed. We support them, give them work that is challenging (but not too challenging), and if they fall, we are there to jump in and catch them before they hit the ground. Often, when students fail, they cry – and we feel terrible. We wonder, “what could I have done to teach the material better, to communicate their homework more clearly, or to give them more time or resources so this failure could have been avoided?”

But I wonder if we are doing children a favor in this regard. Take a break for a moment and check out this video produced by my creative heroes, OK GO. This isn’t my favorite OK GO video to watch, but what what I love about this video is the effort that went into creating it. In fact, there are many videos on the making of the video. In one of those, Damian Kulash, the lead singer of OK GO, talks about what he wanted from the video: “Hopefully it’s like, right on the edge of do-able. Hopefully we won’t nail it once and say, ‘aw, we could have made it better!’”

To me, this is a profound statement about vision. Vision is about seeing the long distance of what might be. It’s not about doing what’s already been done or making incremental changes or improvement. Vision is big and almost impossible. As such, one has to have an appetite for failure. For example, in the outtakes of the video above, one can see that it took them at least 215 takes before they finally got their shot. They knew going into it that they were going to fail their way to success.

A classic example of this “appetite for failure” comes from Thomas Edison, who, when asked about his trials and tribulations while attempting to invent the lightbulb, is widely quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I have successfully found 10,000 ways that will not work!”

I know I have had my failures, and I know how important persistence is on a personal level.  But I can’t remember when I tried doing anything 215 times without giving up. I wonder how my life might be different if I had that kind of persistence. Would I be able to fix my own computer problems? Could I rehab my own house? Could I have written that screenplay I dabbled with? Would I love playing basketball? Would I be a rocking guitarist? I imagine being a happier,  more successful person – not from being more talented, taller, or richer, but by being the kind of person who has a higher tolerance for failure.

One’s ability to face failure over and over again and proceed with faith, vigor, and vision is called persistence. Calvin Coolidge once said, “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”

Are we as parents and educators allowing students to come up with ideas that are “on the edge of do-able?” Are we allowing our students to pursue them doggedly – allowing them to fail over and over again on their way to success? Are we pursuing the changes we want in our organizations and communities with an appetite for failure, or are our own discomfort,  impatience, and aversion to struggle impeding our abilities to change and grow? While we hyper-focus on giving kids the tools for success, are we offering them critical opportunities to learn from failure?