Teaching Our Kids The Value Of Spectacular Failure

by Laurie Ulster
Originally Published: 

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” —Michael Jordan

“It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all, in which case you have failed by default.” —J.K. Rowling

“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” —Robert F. Kennedy

But there’s a much more spectacular kind of failure that hurts more, costs more and teaches us more. It’s the one where you hit rock bottom and taste real defeat, where you can’t pick up the pieces but can only rise from the ashes like a phoenix and start all over again. It’s devastating when it happens, and usually, it’s exactly what you need to get your life back on track.

I was reading about the invaluable life lessons you get from this type of crash on Elite Daily, and everything you learn from this type of fall: You learn to persevere, that all is not lost even when it looks like it is, that a clean slate is possible, and that at some point, you hit that crossroad where you have a choice: wallow in your failure, or use it to start again. To get to that point, to truly understand it, you have to crash pretty damned hard.

It would be terrible to watch my kids go through such a thing, which is probably why I don’t talk to them about it. We can equip them to deal with disappointments, even big ones, but the idea of telling them that they are likely to crash and burn, hard, at least once in their lives, and that it will be good for them after causing them a lot of pain, is not very appealing. So is it really something we can prep them for?

Maybe they’d rather get their life lessons from hearing about when Walt Disney went bankrupt and headed to Los Angeles with nothing in his suitcase but one shirt, two pairs of undershorts, two pairs of socks and some stuff to draw with. Or KFC founder Colonel Sanders, who went so broke that he had to live in his car.

But maybe not. Maybe it’s more helpful to know that someone real to them, someone who didn’t go on to found an empire but found happiness nonetheless—a happiness they can see—once made some really big mistakes. It could mean more to them because it’s real. I’m their mom, the one who makes them feel safe and secure, and yet I crashed pretty spectacularly when I was young, and felt completely shattered by it. My whole life had to change, and that was the beginning of it.

We spend their childhood trying to shield them from such things, preferring to show them the positive side of life, but I wonder if I am leaving out something important when I remember how blindsided I was when my own crash and burn experience hit. I remember wondering what the hell happened and why it had to happen to me, oblivious to the idea that I wasn’t the only one in the world who could fail so severely. It took me much too long to understand that there was something vital to be learned. Knowing that, do I tell them about it? I think so. One day, when they’re old enough.

I hope they can hear it when it’s time, and I hope I can be there for them when it happens, if it happens. And the guiding principle, taken right from the article I just read that brought up all of those awful memories, is this:

“It may be impossible for you to see now, but everything falling apart for you may be exactly what you need,” wrote Paul Hudson on Elite Daily. “It’s when we have nothing to lose that we give life our all. We give life everything we’ve got because we no longer feel that we’ve got much.”

Keeping our failures from our kids is a great temptation, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that it is going to help them more to know that we struggled and failed, and lived to tell the tale. In fact, I doubt I can come up with a better lesson.

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