I saw a family the other week, two boys stuffing bags in the trunk of a black car while the father–in suit, briefcase, two phones, and tie–bid them goodbye.
“Did you remember everything?” the mom called from the driver’s seat, “we can’t come back for it all the way from the rink.” The boys nodded in unison. “Then get in the car and let’s get moving,” the mother urged. “I don’t want to hit traffic!”
The dad patted the older boy on the shoulder and the fleece-hatted head of the younger one. “Remember boys …” he paused to look at his children–one about 12, the other a bit younger, maybe 10–“Don’t be failures!”
“We won’t dad!” the boys chanted back and clambered into the backseat.
It startled me, that last exchange. What kind of a thing to say is that? How can these kids be “Be Failures” anyway? Does having a bad practice, missing a puck, doing badly on a test, even being chosen last for a team–equate with being “A Thing That Fails?” How much failure does one have to accumulate to acquire the definition of “A Failure”? Can it even be attributed to a child, who is by definition still learning how to succeed and as part of that process, must sometimes–in fact, very often–fail? Do we not all of us fail, repeatedly, through life, as we try new things, reach too far too soon, make bad choices, fall into cracks in life’s pavement, trip over our own egos, forget to listen to our instincts, or even just need to hone a skill that’s rusty or nascent and needs more failure to become a Thing That Thrives?
That father seemed kind, even affectionate. I believe he meant to motivate his son. He was upbeat, casual, every-day’ish, and likely unaware that his choice of words made an event–the result of many factors where at least some may be outside of one’s control–into a definition of self-worth.
How can losing, even failing–become BEING the failure? Learning is impossible without experiencing failure. If we define failure as something that is an attribute of WHO we are, how can we expect to move ahead, to try again, to think anew, to hold a hope, to find a path, to dissect a result we did not wish for so we can find what we may do differently the second, third or hundredth’s time around?
Theodore Roosevelt said: ““It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”
The operative word here, in my view, is “to have tried.” Success is not guaranteed. At least not what some may see as success, for is not small progress–a lesson learned, an understanding achieved–also success? Philosophy aside, while success may not be guaranteed, failure, of course is. We all fail. We have to. We don’t know what we don’t know. We are not good at what we did not practice yet. We cannot solve problems we have not found the cause or weak spot of. We cannot change course without an obstacle, a shift, a fault line, a blocked path. Experiencing failure is inevitable. It is a crucial part of growing up and it is an ongoing part of life throughout.
To “Be A Failure”, however, is not inevitable. Not even with much failure. A Failure is something one is made to become. It is a belief, rather than a result. It is a cementing of a view of oneself as “The One Who Fails” and as such by definition not “The One Who Succeeds.”
That dad said: “Don’t be Failures.” Maybe he meant: “Win the game.” I would like to believe he meant: “Learn well. Practice hard. Be focused. Play well. Do your best, every time. Have fun.”
People fail. Often. Children fail. All the time. None of it makes them Failures. Words matter. Words have power. How we use them gives them power. Unlike success, which is ever possible, being a Failure is doomed to fail.
What defines success? A gold medal, surely. We all know that. But does a Silver count? Does it have to be the Olympics? What about coming in fifth after giving it your all or getting in last on a task you trained hard to even complete? How about finally learning to tie your shoelaces so they stay tied more times than not, or getting a 70 on a test in a subject where you previous only managed 62, or reading a book with less help or doing your homework with less mistakes or doing your homework, period, when it feels too hard?
Success does not mean being first, or strongest, richest, smartest, tallest, least-caught-in-bending-the-rules, or most-able-to-get-away-with-what-others-can’t. Success is every time we fail a little less. Every time we meet a challenge and hold determination that we can attempt it one more time and have it be different if only for the fact that it is the fiftieth attempt and not the forty-ninth and we’re still working at it. Success also means changing course, letting go, realizing that one’s passion may not be where one thought success was to be defined. Success means being honest about our abilities, being happy with others’ about theirs, enjoying or at least finding meaning in the process, managing our failures without guilt or shame. To succeed is to look at failure and learn from it. It is to try again, or differently, or figure out what and who we need to help us where we may require aid.
As Winston Churchill’s said: “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”
May there be–for you and for the children in your life, especially–no lack of enthusiasm as you stumble, joyfully, into cumulative success.