Ok, I know this sounds counter-intuitive at best and horrible parenting at worst but hear me out.
None of us like failure. Failing at something means we go through feelings of disappointment in not being able to get the thing we were striving for, feeling inadequate or not good enough, feeling embarrassed and maybe even feeling guilty for not fulfilling someone else’s expectations (Asian parents, I’m looking at you!).
And sometimes, what’s worse than failing alone is failing in front of others. Like the old saying, “if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, will it make a sound?”, if we fail at something and no one else is there to see it, is it still failure?
Because most times, the perception that someone else thinks you’re a failure is far worse than the failure itself.
So why, would any parent who professes to love her children more than life itself, want them to fail? And not just fail, but fail rather spectacularly and rather frequently.
Because failure is inevitable. If you’re alive, then you’re going to come up against failure in some form or the other. It’s a matter of when and not if.
But looking around, you’d think that this was not the case for most people.
We live in a world where perfection is rewarded and revered, mediocrity is pooh-poohed and failure is avoided like the plague. In the world of airbrushed smiley, perfect-bodied models in glossy magazines and always happy friends with their equally happy children (who also happen to be adorable) on Facebook, it’s natural to think that these people have it all together and that ‘it must just be me who’s a hot mess’ – ok, maybe it’s just me that’s the hot mess but you get the point!
I remember as a kid, I was terrified of failure, especially academic failure. My folks were the stereotypical Asian parents who believed that getting a B in a test was almost as bad as dying (ok, I exaggerate but not by much!). So after every test, I would be on edge until the results came in, not because I was afraid of them but because I wanted to make them happy and because I believed that I had to succeed (get that A) every time.
I now know different. I now know that failure is in fact, the building blocks of success. Just like a stable sturdy house is built on a good foundation, so is true success built on multiple bouts of failure.
There is a beautiful story of a donkey who fell down a deep well. His owner, a farmer, tried to find a way of rescuing the poor animal but failing which, he decided it just wasn’t worth the effort. The donkey was old and had served his purpose so it would just be easier to seal the well up, with the donkey inside!
So he grabbed a shovel and rapidly started to shovel dirt into the well.
At first, the donkey, who had been softly braying with fear, now started to scream with terror as shovelful after shovelful of dirt started to fall on his back.
But his cries didn’t stop the mean old farmer, who shovelled even faster.
Then, something happened.
The donkey realized that he was not as helpless as he thought he was – he had found a way out. Every time the farmer shovelled in more dirt, the donkey shook the dirt off of his back and took a step up. The farmer was so busy trying to bury the donkey that he didn’t notice that with every shovelful of dirt he threw down the well, the donkey got just a little bit higher, until finally, so much dirt had been shovelled in, that the donkey was finally able to step out of the well.
Obviously, the moral of the story is that any failure or bad thing that happens to us can be made into an opportunity for growth and success. The donkey in the story was smart enough to know that crying about what he could not control was useless and futile. Instead, he thought about what was in his control and acted accordingly to win his freedom.
Life is forever throwing shovelfuls of dirt on us. This is not something we can change so there really is no point in complaining about it or even trying to avoid it. What we should focus on is what we can change, and the most important thing that we can change is our attitude. How we look at those shovelfuls of dirt or basically the failures we come up against. Do we try to hide from them, complain about them and basically feel like a victim or do we figure out how to use them to our advantage and thus, take control?
The key I believe, to doing this, is through the normalization of failure. Once failure is viewed as something which is as mundane as having chicken soup for Monday night dinner, we will be able to look at failure as ‘just another part of life’ instead of the soul-shattering catastrophic event that most of us see it as.
So how do we go about normalizing failure? By having it happen to us over and over again so that what was once something as painful as having a limb sawed off will instead become a brisk sting and finally a tiny prick. Hardly noticeable, definitely nothing to mope about, get depressed and feel as if the world is against us. Instead, something to shrug our shoulders, think ‘ok, that happened’ and get on with the business of finding a work-around.
Which brings me to why I want my kids to fail, over and over again, stupendously and memorably – because I want them to succeed, gloriously and uninhibitedly.