By Mark Lawley
With the pressure on America’s education system to achieve high test scores and track measurable improvement in schools, there is little discussion about embracing failure. Just the thought of becoming comfortable with failure—or heaven forbid, embracing it —would send any school administrator into a nervous fizz. However, there is great value in failure.
When someone wins a race or game, earns an “A”, or is selected for an award, I wonder how those earnings compare with the fringe benefits of failure. Individuals may have learned that hard work pays off, they may have developed better training or research skills, acquired improved study habits, or perhaps have an off-kilter perception of how amazing or lucky they must be! Nevertheless, the list of lessons learned from failing can often be much longer than the list of those gained from success. If students can be encouraged to view failure as opportunity, then this may be educational reform at its finest. By guiding students to reflect, analyze, ask questions, dig deeper, become more determined, practice harder or smarter, or seek advice and wise counsel, they can begin to embrace failure. Failing is a golden opportunity for growth.
A conducting and teaching colleague of mine, Jing Ling-Tam, once leaned over to me at a banquet and said, “You know what’s wrong with American culture, Mark?” I was somewhat taken aback by this and rather apprehensively responded, “What?” She replied, “Go into any American child’s bedroom, look on their dresser, and what do you see?”
Suddenly feeling somewhat put on the spot and a bit responsible for representing American culture, I sheepishly replied, “I don’t know.”
Jing dogmatically said, “Trophies. Trophies and ribbons and medals! And for what?” She queried. She rushed to answer her own question: “For showing up, for putting on a jersey, for being on the team, for mediocrity!”
I had to swallow hard and realize that in an effort to encourage, and to build self-esteem and confidence, I had been guilty of rewarding results that were indeed mediocre at best. With good intention I had praised instead of saying, “You know, I think you can do better, this isn’t your best work, your efforts haven’t reached a very high standard.” I had shuddered at the thought of telling a student they had failed. And yet learning to embrace failure can be a launching pad to a lifetime of profound learning and success.
Imagine the hundreds of thousands of children’s (and adults’) imaginations that might have missed the fantastical influence of Harry Potter had author J.K. Rowling not embraced failure. A short seven years after her college graduation day, she faced failure on what she describes as an epic scale. Her marriage was over, she was jobless, a single parent, and as poor as it was possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless. She says she was the biggest failure she knew. For Rowling, failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. She stopped pretending that she was anything other than what she was, and began to direct all of her energy into finishing the only work that mattered to her. Failure set her free to succeed. Rock bottom became a launching pad on which she rebuilt her life and her career.
Embrace failure? Absolutely. For in it, we have everything to gain!
MARK LAWLEY IS DIRECTOR OF MUSIC EDUCATION AND SPECIAL INSTRUCTOR OF MUSIC