Thursday, March 7, 2013

Failure: A Critical Key to Success?

I sat on the edge of my cold metal chair, acutely aware of the stagnant middle school gym air. My son lobbed his way down the wood planked court, awkwardly handling the basketball for as little time as he could possibly manage before passing it to one of his more confident teammates. Though it was one of the final games of his inaugural season of little league basketball -  and, though his skill level had grown substantially over the proceeding weeks -  his confidence still wavered. On a league of nine and ten year olds, I imagine a lot of the boys were in a similar place.

Each time my son handled the ball, I celebrated his victory. Each time he defended a play or snagged a rebound, I celebrated his victory. That's what parents do, right? We cheer our children on and support them in their growth and accomplishment.

But what happens when those shots and attempts fall flat?

Flanked by my husband on the left and a loud, verbally diarrhetic father on the right, I watched the game unfold. (For the record, I do not know who this man was.) Play after play the father sitting beside me groaned at each missed shot his son's team made. When the other team scored, he belly ached. The game, in his eyes, was clearly "unfare." When someone stole the ball from his son, it was, of course, a travesty!  When the score reached a certain divide, he claimed it was too painful to the losing team and the ref's should just erase the score and allow the boys to play for fun. He further belly-ached that the "good" players should be benched or at very least, not allowed to shoot any more baskets.

As painful as it was for this father to see his child struggle, I wonder if there was actual merit to clearing the scoreboard. Was his child - or any child for that matter - at risk of long term or irreparable trauma?

Of course, as parents, we all want our children to succeed. The very suggestion that someone would want to see their child fail is ridiculous. But at what point does good intentioned parenting cross the line? Is it possible that our instinct to protect can actually inhibit our child's potential for growth? Can protecting our children from failure actually be detrimental to their future success?

I think we'd all agree that those feelings of defeat are horrible; even unbearable at times. Let's be honest, failure sucks! But if we were never allowed to taste defeat, how would we know the sweet savor of victory? Some of my biggest accomplishments came on the heels of some of my greatest struggles. Most successful people experienced struggle and even failures before experiencing success. Walt Disney's first business failed. Henry Ford's first two automobiles failed. Soichiro Honda was turned down a job by Toyota Motors and spent many years jobless. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team because he lacked skill. Albert Einstein was encouraged to drop out of school because his teacher told him that he'd "never amount to anything." Abraham Lincoln had 12 failed political runs before becoming the 16th President of the United States.

Failure, whether we want to admit it or not, helps us grow. When we shelter our children from the "soft" failures of childhood and adolescence, are we not depriving them of the opportunity to gain crucial life-long skills? If they don't learn to rebound and adapt as children, how then as adults will they know how to solve problems and overcome adversity?

Life isn't always fair. Sometimes we face opponents that are better than us. Sometimes we give our all and somehow we still come up short.  But we don't become winners by ignoring the score! We become winners by working hard, admitting defeat, recognizing our need for improvement, and overcoming our weakness.

My son didn't score a single point for his team that afternoon, but he learned, he grew, and he kept going even when the chips were down. There was no expectation that the playing field would be leveled to his ability, nor was there any need for the score to be equalized. He may never be a basketball phenomena (or perhaps he will, who knows?) but if he picks up a stone each time he falls, overtime he will have collected enough to build a staircase to the stars!

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